To Stretch or To Not Stretch?

There are so many questions and confusion when it comes to stretching. Do we do it? If so, how often and when? Will we die if we don’t?

When it comes to stretching, the opinions are divisive. Some say there’s nothing beneficial about stretching before or after exercise, some say it’s actually a risk to stretch before activities, and others swear that you’ll explode if you don’t stretch before jumping into a workout. So, who is right?

There are a few different ways to stretch. That’s right, not all stretching is the same!

Static stretching is what most people think of first. This involves a stretch that is held for a longer period of time, while holding the same (static) position. Another type of stretching is dynamic stretching. This involves using movement and momentum to propel the muscle into an extended range of motion. There is also Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching. This type of stretching can be used to increase mobility by opening a new range of motion that was not available prior to the stretching. It uses a sequence of contracting and relaxing muscles to basically trick your brain into allowing a greater range of motion.

It seems that there is research to support any argument about stretching, largely because the research is inconclusive at best. There is a consensus that there may be benefits to stretching before exercise, provided that the stretching is not deep, static stretching. There is little evidence to support the idea that not stretching before exercise is detrimental, and you certainly won’t explode. That said, stretching is completely different from warming up before exercise. Stretching is not a warm up, and should not be used as a warm up. Stretching can help prepare the muscles for the stretch they might encounter in the activity you’re about to do, but that won’t prepare your muscles to do the WORK that the exercise demands.

For the average Joe stretching before exercise is neither definitively beneficial nor harmful. More elite athletes, on the other hand, do need to weigh the evidence that there is a temporary reduction in the ability to produce force following a stretching session. This means those in power sports, or sports that do not require a special flexibility or range of motion are better off to skip the pre-game stretch for maximum performance, unless its followed by some type of movement or other explosive type of warm up before heading into practice or game performance.

Stretching post-exercise has largely the same results in terms of studies as pre-exercise stretching. Although there is a marginal increase in reports of less muscle soreness when post-exercise stretching is completed.

It is important to note that the trials that have been completed have centred around static stretching and have not explored other kinds of stretching. It is also important to note that there are no studies that have looked at the chronic effect of stretching, as all have focused on the acute effects of stretching.

So, what does that all mean? More or less, stretch if it makes you feel good, and don’t feel guilty if you don’t. At the very least, getting your stretch on won’t hurt!

Kristen Hansen, BA, CSEP-CPT, PFT-NAIT, NASM-CES, FRCms
SVPT Fitness & Athletics