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Stretching, a waste of time?

Updated: Sep 15, 2022

“I’ve been stretching it” is still one of, if not, the most common phrases we hear in clinic when someone talks to us about an injury they are currently suffering from. For some reason there is a very apparent association between injury and stretching, especially when the injury is relatively new to the individual.

This could be due to the perception that stretching makes it ‘feel’ better or simply because it’s something that is socially engrained into society that we don’t do enough. The term stretching is frequently accompanied with “tightness”, another overused word in the fitness world, leading people to believe that they need to stretch in order to ‘reduce’ that feeling of being tight. However it isn’t always the best option.

And here is why:

A soft tissue injury such as a muscle strain is a trauma to an area of the body, which triggers an initial panic/protective response of locking up the surrounding structures. For the healing process to work more efficiently the brain and central nervous system first needs to understand the extend of the trauma and deal with it accordingly – it is very important you allow this process to happen. Continuously stressing the affected area with stretches will often contribute greater stress and additional aggravation to the already agitated and inflamed muscles. In short, stretching can be having a detrimental affect on soft tissue injury.

Our advice to anyone with an acute injury is to respect the healing process and facilitate only gentle manageable movements, determining load and range relative to pain/discomfort levels (i.e. full weight bearing for an ankle injury or total knee extension for a hamstring injury). Depending on the injury itself, we will often prescribe a checklist of things to complete during each phase before you move on to the next topic of progressions. For example, non-weight bearing isometrics all the way through to co-contraction and plyometrics. Positional isometrics are the best place to start to allow communication and information about the injury to be sent to the brain, as well as support the healing process of damaged tissue. If pain persists or remains particularly uncomfortable, we always recommend getting assessed by a medical professional before beginning any serious rehabilitation.

Feeling tight doesn’t always account for being inflexible or restricted over a joint. We suggest instead of using the muscles feeling as a measure, first ask yourself what area is tight and find out what position it needs to be in to determine maximum length. Then use this as a guide to first measure asymmetry when comparing left and right limbs, for example with the hamstrings you can perform the straight leg raise. Is there a clear and obvious difference between the two? Or is there a serious decrease in length compared to normative data (although normative data is not always important). Muscle length can also be determined by or restricted by load, for example, can the muscle deal with the load you are putting it under through various ranges. If so, stretching will do very little to help your bodies ability to tolerate load. Alternatively, the tightness you’re experiencing can also be down to muscles being over worked switched on for too long leading to fatigue. Stretching won’t prevent symptoms from coming back, adaptation of muscle strength through various ranges, during a regular and progressive training plan will be your best bet. Overall improving your bodies ability to withstand trauma and load.

In conclusion, This leads to an important note that Strength training > Stretching. However, strength is personal, it’s your capability to comfortably meet the physical demands of life. Being strong doesn’t mean you’re highly athletic or built to lift your own bodyweight above your head. Everybody should be strength training within the demands of what their body is capable and to a degree that matches their lifestyle. So, if you’re feeling ‘tight’ it’s not time to stretch, it’s time for you to get stronger.

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