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February 19, 2011 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Does stretching (before/after exercise) actually help in any measurable way at all?

I, like many of us, probably had to do "calisthenics" back in high school P.E. that consisted largely of various stretches with no particularly obvious goal.

Recently, due to a leg injury, I've been contemplating what stretching is actually supposed to help with, and whether it really makes any noticeable differences. It seems that the obvious goal of stretching is to increase flexibility, but why flexibility itself would something worth increasing is a bit of a mystery. Sure, some activities require it, like yoga or gymnastics (or rehabilitating an injured leg), but many others don't, including many that we did in P.E. in high school, like running and basketball, which can be done just fine with a normal, everyday range of motion.

So I went to the internet to see if I could find out if stretching really had many benefits. It seems the main goals of stretching are to increase flexibility and to reduce the chance of injury while exercising. From the few studies I found, it looks like stretching (at least for runners) doesn't reduce the chances of injury by any significant amount. Further, it seems pre-run stretching actually hinders performance during the run.

Is there any (non-anecdotal) evidence that stretching is good for anything except being more flexible (or even for that, really)? Is there any reason to value high flexibility outside of activities like yoga that require it?

Why stretch at all instead of just spending more time on your workout?
posted by tylerkaraszewski to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Short answer:
Stretching also promotes good balance, improved posture and ensures smooth range of motion. While it doesn't outright give you proper form, it affords you the opportunity to have proper form throughout the entire exercise.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:18 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: I wrote a post on how stretching works. The short of it is, stretch to the range of motion you'll need for the activity you need to do, not beyond that, otherwise you open yourself up for injury. The reason we keep getting mixed results on studies is that stretching can either help prevent injury OR help cause injury based on whether it's appropriate for the activity.
posted by yeloson at 10:21 AM on February 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

IANAD, but after I had my ACL replaced a few years ago, I found that routine stretching helped me regain the ROM that I had pre-surgery. Also, the increased flexibility at least seemed to help take stress of the joints, as I could bend/move more without having to move the recently repaired joint.
posted by caminovereda at 10:35 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: It's less to do with preparing for activity than combating the muscle-tightening effects of prior activity.

In other words, it's not about the immediate short term; rather, one stretches to maintain a healthy level of flexibility in the long term.

The best time to do it is probably on an off day or early in the morning or whatever, rather than right before a workout, but it's more convenient (especially for, say, gym class) to just do it immediately beforehand.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:41 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: The thinking in your post is sound. If you have a specific mobility issue, you should work on it. I used to have some difficulty with hamstring and shoulder mobility in my squat, so I did some mobility work at the beginning of every workout -- leg swings and shoulder dislocations, mostly. I don't have those issues anymore, so my warmup sets are a sufficient stretch for me. Stretching can be useful, but it needs to make sense in context, or it's not an efficient use of time. Not everyone's needs are the same.
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 10:57 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: Ever since reading this last year, I have stopped doing old-school stretching before exercising. The principles in the article are sound and make good sense.
posted by angiewriter at 11:55 AM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: Did you see the news articles from earlier this week about how stretching before exercise doesn't prevent injury?
posted by hot soup girl at 12:17 PM on February 19, 2011

Response by poster: Based on everything linked so far, the following seem like they should be pretty non-controversial:

1) Stretching is good for improving flexibility, but improving flexibility past a range of motion you'll actually use in your exercise is potentially detrimental and could actually increase your chance of hurting yourself. Flexibility, like most other physical traits is built up slowly over time, not in short five minute bursts of stretching that lose their effect a few minutes later.

2) Stretching immediately before exercising is no better than stretching afterward, or at a completely different time, and is likely worse for your performance because the reaction your muscles have to the stretching makes you perform worse in a way that's pretty analogous to tiring them out before your workout. The flexibility benefits gained from stretching will last much longer than a few minutes, so you might as well do them and give yourself some recovery time before doing other exercise.

3) If you want to warm up before exercising, you're probably better off doing a few light-intensity versions of your exercise, within your normal range of motion, rather than pushing yourself past that range trying to have "deep" stretches.

This tells me that I should:
  • Keep stretching my knee until I get my normal range of motion back (i.e., I can straighten it completely).
  • Skip over intense stretching before my normal exercise (cycling, surfing, swimming).
  • If I need to improve flexibility, stretch on off days or after my main workout.
  • I probably don't need to improve flexibility anywhere except my injured leg.
I'll certainly welcome more input and revise these conclusions if they seem wrong.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 12:48 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Part of my physical assessment qualifications include being able to reach my toes. Personally, I know that stretching every day, at least once a day, helps me to reach and maintain that goal. From my experience, stretching helps wake me up in the morning (as breakfast is known to help in the same way), relieves stress in the evening, and helps relax muscles after repetitive motions such as during sex (hey, it's true). If nothing else, it can remind you your whole body is wonderfully alive and should be used and be kept healthy. Heh, just my two cents.
posted by DisreputableDog at 1:21 PM on February 19, 2011

You could look into trigger point therapy. Check out the rectus femoris muscle.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:30 PM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: There's a lot of discussion of stretching, including links to some research, in this post. The short answer is that the evidence in favor of stretching is scant, and if we didn't already think stretching was a good idea it would probably be abandoned.
posted by OmieWise at 2:59 PM on February 19, 2011

Warm muscles are less likely to be injured than cold muscles, and stretching helps literally "warm them up", the reason for before-exercise. If you ask your muscles to do more than they are used to doing, there is a tendency for lactic acid to accumulate in the muscles during exercise, which causes the next day achiness. Stretching afterwards (or massage afterwards) helps move the lactic acid out of the muscles, reducing the achiness.
Also, most of us use our bodies in a pretty limited range of activities and positions, so some muscles tend to get tighter and shorter and some weaker. Muscle imbalances is what leads to pain in movement. So good flexibility will reduce pain longterm.
posted by grizzled at 3:15 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I personally think that the current backlash against stretching is an overreaction to evidence against a particular kind of overflexibility and static stretching movements. Mobility (that is, being able to move your joints through a full range of motion) is incredibly important and very few people have perfect mobility in all joints without working on it to some degree, especially those of us with desk jobs.

I've linked to it before, MobilityWOD (and the guy behind it, Kelly Starret), is a great resource for learning how to evaluate and improve your own mobility. And even if you don't have the time or commitment to do one of these on a regular basis, foam rolling can provide some mobilization in just a few minutes.

I say all of this as someone that bought all the "Stretching is bullshit" arguments before I injured myself a few times, and now keeps her pain minimized with a lot of mobility and prehab work. It's not fun, it takes time, but if you are going at workouts with much intensity, it is probably something you should spend a little time doing.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:34 PM on February 19, 2011

Best answer: If you ask your muscles to do more than they are used to doing, there is a tendency for lactic acid to accumulate in the muscles during exercise, which causes the next day achiness.

"Contrary to popular opinion, lactate or, as it is often called, lactic acid buildup is not responsible for the muscle soreness felt in the days following strenuous exercise."
posted by Anatoly Pisarenko at 3:58 PM on February 19, 2011

Be sure not to stretch before or in-between sets if you're weightlifting. Studies have shown that it can heavily impede on your performance (up to 30% I believe) and even cause you to become more sore the next day. When I say "performance", I mean the number of reps you can obtain with a given weight - or in a more generic sense, the "strength" of the muscle that is being stretched. You can read more here if you like.
posted by Evernix at 6:45 PM on February 19, 2011

Let's simplify this: Stretching is good. Except before a workout, then you want to do mobility work.

People seem to get confused over all the articles that have come out about stretching being bad before a workout and now people think stretching is just plain bad.

"I've never seen a lion limber up before he goes after a gazelle".

This is actually a good qoute because it brings up some of the bigger points in peoples misunderstanding about stretching.
A lion does maybe all of a handful of things everyday, and one of them is stretching. Most every animal stretches daily and if you think about it so do most humans before they get in the habit of forgetting. Watch a cat or dog when they wake up, they stretch. So we do know a lion stretchs daily, probably a couple of times a day, and then theres a whole pre-hunt limber-up period before she goes after a gazelle we could also talk about. But let's digress from that because we aren't lions and we don't hunt wildebeasts on open plains.

So the question is do you have to stretch? What do you do on a daily basis? What do you plan on doing? Anything "athletic" or dynamic in nature? The thing is you can't really plan on what you're going to do with your body because sometimes you may slip on some ice and SNAP! there goes a hammy. This is why the idea that daily stretching (in whatever form that takes) is a good idea regardless.

Anyway, your followup points are pretty good but I want to add one caveat to this:
3) If you want to warm up before exercising, you're probably better off doing a few light-intensity versions of your exercise, within your normal range of motion, rather than pushing yourself past that range trying to have "deep" stretches.
Not necessarily. You may want to check out Magnificent Mobility, it's one of the best products I've seen covering this subject.posted by P.o.B. at 7:55 PM on February 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't know any of the science on this topic, so I'll leave that to others, but I can discuss my personal experience with it. About 2 1/2 years ago, my boyfriend had a stroke (at 40!) Needless to say, this scared the shit out of both of us and we were determined to get him healthy. He quit smoking and we started walking for exercise; we both went from basically sedentary to walking an hour or more a day several days a week. I started to have pain and stiffness in my hips which progressed to the point where I was waking up several times a night from the pain, could barely struggle out of a chair to a standing position, and was so stiff it was difficult to get in and out of cars. I had to stop exercising completely, as any exercise left my legs stiff and painful. After x-rays revealed nothing wrong, my doctor referred me to a physical therapist who taught me to stretch. After about two months of stretching, I finally started to see improvement. Now I have no pain as long as I stretch every day, and I can exercise as much as I want.

Like lots of things, you don't appreciate flexibility until you don't have it. Imagine not being able to lift your leg high enough to get in a van, or having to push yourself up from a chair with your arms and stumble stiffly for 5 or 10 steps before your legs loosen up enough to walk normally. Imagine waking up in terrible pain and having to use your arms to roll yourself over to the less painful hip, all the while trying not to moan out loud and wake your partner.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:45 PM on February 19, 2011

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