How many trainers, coaches and doctors have told you that stretching before exercise is crucial? The widely believed idea is that if you stretch before exercising, you'll prevent injury, reduce muscle soreness and increase athletic performance. Although a reasonably logical idea, have you ever wondered how much truth there is behind our ritualistic stretching routines? You might be surprised to find the science is telling a much different story.
It turns out that stretching doesn't really prevent injury, reduce muscle soreness or increase athletic performance ... so how could something so ubiquitous be so wrong? Here are three ways we've been wrong about stretching and the science behind the reasoning.
1. Stretching doesn't reduce muscle soreness.
Active people are all too familiar with the muscle soreness that comes the day after heavy exercise. However, most people believe that if they do a warm up stretch before and after exercising, they'll reduce their soreness for the following day.
A group of researchers did a review of 14 randomized controlled studies to find out if the effects of stretching before or after physical activity actually reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness. They found that "the evidence from randomized studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed‐onset muscle soreness in healthy adults."
So it looks like there's no escaping that next day muscle soreness, but it does put to rest this widely believed myth.
2. Stretching doesn't reduce injury.
There are two ideas people use to try and explain why stretching will prevent injury. The first is that stretching prevents injury be means of warming up the muscles, making them less susceptible to injury. Although there's evidence to support this claim, the idea that stretching is an effective way to warm up the muscles is wishful thinking at best.
To warm up your muscles, you have to raise your body temperature, which usually involves exercise that make you breathe heavily and sweat — these are the signs that you're getting warmer. However, stretching doesn't result in these physically responses, making it an ineffective way to warm up. You would be far better off doing some light dynamic exercises like body weight squats and push-ups instead of static stretching.
The second idea is that stretching will prevent you from pulling a muscle or enduring some kind of lower body injury. A study of 1020 soldiers not only set out to prove if flexibility would reduce lower body injuries, it even threw strength and coordination training into the mix. The soldiers went on a prevention program consisting of a 15-minute exercise, three times a week that included five exercises for strength, coordination and flexibility. The study concluded that the preventative exercise program didn't influence the risk of developing the most common lower body injuries.
So, stretching isn't the answer to injury prevention.
3. Stretching doesn't improve athletic performance.
Stretching for flexibility isn't a myth. If you stretch long and hard enough, you can absolutely become more flexible ... but so what? If you're someone who does common exercises like running or weight lifting, why would you need to have abnormal range of motion? The simple answer is you don't.
Forcing your body into abnormal positions and adding weight or pressure will only compromise your joints and limbs, increasing your chances of injury. And stretching won't give you any extra strength or performance advantage if you're using it alongside common gym or running routines.
Quite the opposite actually. It turns out that stretching for 30-45 seconds has no significant effect on performance, and stretching for longer than 60 seconds can actually reduce your maximum muscle output.
Unless you're actively doing yoga or martial arts — activities where flexibility is helpful to form and function — there's no advantage in being flexible.
We often think we're smarter than our bodies, and we tend to convince it to do things it doesn't want to because "we know better." Yet, when you look at the science and listen to your body, you'll clearly see that there's no real benefit in stretching. If you enjoy stretching because it feels good and it allows you to keep your normal range of motion, then by all means, stretch! However, if you're doing it for any other reason, you're probably wasting your time.