Over the years the philosophy and science regarding stretching has changed dramatically. First, experts said to stretch before exercise; and when you stretch, you should “bounce” or perform a ballistic stretch. Then, they found that ballistic stretching caused injuries to cold muscles, so they decided that it was still important to stretch before exercise– but, stretches should be static, so no bouncing. Then, they decided that it may not be such a good idea to stretch when a muscle is “cold.” So, no more stretching before exercise– it would be better to stretch after. Well, what if you warm up your muscles before exercise? Well, then, you should stretch after you warm up but before you exercise. And, what if you just hate stretching?
Guess what? One study showed that stretching does not reduce the risk for injury! Guess what else? Another study showed that stretching before exercise reduces your muscle power output. It may even make you slower or weaker and hurt your performance.
So, what is the deal with stretching and what’s the bottomline?
When it comes to exercise, it is one thing to move, and it is another thing to move well. Our muscles and joints need to have an adequate range of motion and flexibility in order to coordinate proper patterns of movement with other joints and muscles. If a joint or muscle lacks the range of motion or flexibility to perform a certain pattern of movements, other joints or muscles will need to compensate for that lack of mobility. This creates an increase strain on these other joints and/or muscles leaving them susceptible to injury and also increasing a risk for injury at the joint or muscle that is not functioning correctly as it tries to “keep up” with the demand of the movement pattern. At the very least, stretching should be done to gain or maintain proper range of motion of our muscles and joints to accommodate proper patterns of movement.
If you lack the range of motion necessary to perform proper walking and running motions, squats, bench presses, or push ups, you should stretch to restore the mobility necessary to perform the activity you are doing. In the case that you do not have the full range of motion needed for a particular activity or movement pattern, you should stretch before the activity to allow for better movement during the activity. And, if you need to stretch before an activity, you should either start with gentle stretches and progress to more rigorous stretching as the muscle warms up or warm the muscle up and start stretching.
For the purpose of trying to increase the flexibility or length of a muscle, static stretches are most effective. This would apply even if you are about to compete or perform because it is better to restore proper movement patterns than to try to preserve power output with poor movement patterns.
If you move well, there is no point in stretching prior to exercise or performance. In this case, you need to warm up to prepare your body for the stress you are about to put it through, but you still may consider stretching afterward to be sure to not stiffen up and lose mobility.
It does not stop there. Keep in mind that poor movement patterns tend to result in muscles tightening up, which, in turn, limits mobility. If you do not move well and your muscles are tightening up as a result of compensating, stretching will have minimal effect. If you can identify the faulty movement pattern and correct it, your muscles will be less likely to tighten up, and they will begin to regain mobility because the affected muscle or muscles will no longer compensate for the poor movement pattern.
You do not need to have the flexibility of a ballerina if you do not plan on doing splits. But, you do need adequate mobility in order to move well. And if you move well, you will be less likely to lose flexibility. The point of stretching is to maintain flexibility and mobility in order to move well or to regain mobility and promote proper mobility. Simply put: If you do not move well, you should stretch before exercise to restore mobility and allow for proper movement. If you move well and have proper movement, you should stretch after exercise to maintain flexibility and mobility.