Are you someone who frequently stretches? Do you stretch before or after exercise? Do you stretch for flexibility or to prevent injury? How long do you typically hold your stretches? Maybe you don’t stretch at all or wonder why you would want to stretch anything in the first place. Cleveland Browns offensive line coach Bob Wylie made a powerful statement about how stretching is overrated and rarely has his 300-pound players stretch. Instead, he believes his massive players could be spending most of their productive time strengthening. Even if this were true, most of us aren’t 300-pound linemen who need to protect our professional quarterback. Let’s clarify the current concepts of stretching and when it is an appropriate time to stretch.
An Introduction To Stretching
First, let’s review the different kinds of stretches.
Static stretches involve a sustained hold of a muscle or group of muscles into their passive end-range of motion. This method of prolonged holding is what many think of when they are asked to demonstrate or define “stretching.”
Dynamic stretches involve more active movements through greater amounts of a range of motion. Examples could include performing body-weighted lunges or doing arm circles. Frequently people think of these exercises as a warm-up before training.
Ballistic stretches are dynamic stretches that involves repetitive movements at a muscle’s end range of motion that the American College of Sports Medicine no longer recommends due to the increased risk of injury.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretches involve repetitive intervals of muscle holds, contractions, and relaxations to achieve a better joint range of motion. PNF stretches can rely on a muscle’s ability to relax immediately after performing a contraction. The different variations of PNF stretches are performed for different purposes depending on what you would like to achieve with your stretch.
Why is Stretching Important?
Stretching is a supported method of exercise depending on the goal of what the person wants to achieve. If the goal is to become more flexible and obtain a greater range of motion with a specific part of the body, then active, dynamic, and PNF stretching are all supported methods of achieving this goal.
The important concept to grasp is that evidence has shown that with repeated stretching, we are likely not experiencing improvements in muscle extensibility but rather improving our tolerance to the stretch placed on a particular muscle.
Repetition with a specific movement allows the muscles of our body to adapt and become more comfortable with the strain that is being placed on it. Regardless of the adaptation, frequent stretching can improve a range of motion.
What Else Is Stretching Good For?
Stretching may also serve as a pain reliever and decrease muscle tone while improving blood circulation. It may feel good to allow muscles to stretch to warm up or cool down after intensive exercise. Stretches is also beneficial for muscle cramps, particularly for nocturnal muscle cramps such as getting a calf cramp at night.
One study found that frequent static stretching before going to sleep reduced the frequency of having calf cramps by 66%.3 In addition to nocturnal cramps, exercise-induced cramps may also respond positively to stretches in the short term.
When Should You Not Stretch?
If the goal of stretching is to improve the performance of your activity or reduce the incidence of injury, then stretches may not be the way to go. There is limited evidence to show that stretching reduces the overall incidence of injury, particularly with static stretches.
Static stretching performed before strength training, running, and jumping has been shown to decrease strength and performance.
Dynamic stretches before exercise do not decrease strength or performance and might be suitable for an exercise involving running or jumping.
Stretching has also been found not to be beneficial for preventing delayed onset muscle soreness or the soreness you can get from excessive muscle fatigue following a workout.
How Long Should Stretches Be Held?
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that static stretching be held for at least 15-30 seconds, and should be repeated 2-4 times at least 2-3 days a week.
A longer duration stretch may be more beneficial, particularly with older individuals stretching up to 60 seconds in duration.3 Long-term flexibility may be achieved if stretching consistently for at least 6-8 weeks.
The vital aspect of stretching is to stretch consistently and often to achieve results, particularly if the goal is to achieve greater long-term flexibility. When stretching, hold the body position to the point of muscle tightness but do not exceed a painful threshold while performing an activity. It’s important to note that stretching may be individualized and specific to the person or the sport they are performing.
Static stretches may be more beneficial for a sport requiring more flexibility like gymnastics or ballet, yet may not be as effective for runners. Runners may benefit from some muscle stiffness, providing improved elastic energy storage and return for better running efficiency and economy.
Stretching should be a form of exercise included in your exercise program because it allows for benefits that may help you achieve your personalized fitness goals. It continues to be supported as a beneficial exercise method as long as the goals are appropriate for the individual.
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Josh Guyer grew up in Central Oregon and graduated from the University of Portland in 2013. His professional interests extend to tennis and golf with over 10 years of experience in both sports, winning an Oregon high school tennis doubles state championship. He has interests in orthopedics and sports medicine, treating athletes of all ages, prevention and wellness, and post-surgical rehabilitation. Josh has a strong commitment to promoting health and wellness and tailors his care to meet each patient’s needs and goals.
- Page P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012 Feb;7(1):109-19. PMID: 22319684; PMCID: PMC3273886.
- ACSM certification blog and articles. ACSM_CMS. https://www.acsm.org/all-blog-posts/certification-blog/acsm-certified-blog/2021/03/18/stretching-and-flexibility-guidelines-update. Published March 18, 2021. Accessed February 10, 2022.
- Joannes M. Hallegraeff, Cees P. van der Schans, Renee de Ruiter, Mathieu H.G. de Greef, Stretching before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults: a randomised trial, Journal of Physiotherapy, Volume 58, Issue 1, 2012, Pages 17-22, ISSN 1836-9553, https://doi.org/10.1016/S1836-9553(12)70068-1.
- Chan SPHong YRobinson PD. Flexibility and passive resistance of the hamstrings of young adults using two different static stretching protocols. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports. Apr 2001;11(2):81–86
- McGrath RP, Whitehead JR, Caine DJ. The Effects of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching on Post-Exercise Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in Young Adults. Int J Exerc Sci. 2014 Jan 1;7(1):14-21. PMID: 27182398; PMCID: PMC4831894.
- Baxter C, Mc Naughton LR, Sparks A, Norton L, Bentley D. Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Res Sports Med. 2017 Jan-Mar;25(1):78-90. doi: 10.1080/15438627.2016.1258640.