Stretching – The Ultimate Overview

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This article exists to make you aware of all the things you should know about stretching if your goal is to create your own stretching routine. 

Why You Should Absolutely Not Stretch

Not everyone should be stretching – at least not in the same ways. 

What you stretch, when you stretch, and whether or not you stretch at all should be determined by the activities you currently participate in. Like any other form of physical training, stretching is supposed to help you perform better in your regular activities. In light of this, athletes probably shouldn’t stretch for the sake of it as it’s possible to be too flexible for your activity.

Example: Runners may find that certain stretches for the hamstring and calf muscles negatively affect their running economy (Craib et al. 1996). 

If you’re currently using or planning to use, a stretching routine that you created, you need to understand what you’re doing.

Stretching For Athletic Performance

You don’t have to stretch every muscle in the body. This is especially true if you’re doing your strength training properly (ie: taking the targetted muscles through their full range of motion (ROM) most of the time).

Stretching, like any other type of physical training, is only truly useful if it’s tailored to your preferred activities.

Example: I practice calisthenics. In order to perform a proper handstand, I need to have adequate shoulder flexibility to perform the hold. Therefore, I actively worked to develop sufficient shoulder flexibility and I now train to maintain it. 

To summarize, stretch with a purpose. Your flexibility should slightly exceed what’s required to perform regular movement patterns in your sport. This will prevent overuse injuries and improve your performance.

Stretching & Strength

If you haven’t built up sufficient strength for the specific muscles you’re trying to stretch, there’s a high probability that you’ll injure yourself. 

Example: If you were to practice an isometric side split with weak hip adductors there’s a very good chance you’ll injure these muscles.

In most cases, it would be better to increase the strength of your body as a whole for a few months (the right way) before you start stretching.

IMPORTANT: Do not stretch a muscle if you’re experiencing chronic muscle soreness or pain in that area! These issues (and many others) can usually be resolved through proper strength and mobility training but will almost always be dramatically worsened by stretching.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching consists of actively moving a joint through its full ROM. The goal is to gradually improve a joint’s active ROM (ie: the range of motion while the joint is in motion). 

How Often Should You Train Dynamic Flexibility?

If your goal is to increase a joint’s active ROM, dynamic stretching should be done two or more times each day. Training with rest days (resting from dynamic flexibility training) will impede your progress (Matveev 1981). 

Proper dynamic stretching done consistently should continue to improve flexibility for about 10 weeks. After that, the improvements are pretty much insignificant. To maintain dynamic flexibility, you can dramatically reduce the frequency of your stretches. The amount of ‘maintenance’ you need to do will gradually increase as you age (Matveev 1981).

If your activities force you to continually train within a fraction of a joint’s ROM then you should continue to perform dynamic stretches to maintain your flexibility:

Example: Biking takes the hip joints through a very small ROM and may cause tightness as they become stronger in a shortened position. 

Make sure you regularly use the full ROM of your joints while strength training. As I mentioned above, it’s possible to reduce your ROM by training within a small ROM (Kurz 2003). 

When Should You Train Dynamic Flexibility?

Dynamic stretching should be done while the muscles are fresh, so stretching in the morning and/or prior to your training sessions after a brief warm-up is what works best. If you’re taking a complete rest day where you aren’t active at all, dynamic stretching once in the morning and again in the afternoon is best (Kurz 2003).

How Should I Train My Dynamic Flexibility?

Never swing a limb through a dynamic stretch. Instead, train each desired movement in a controlled manner (Logan & Egstorm 1961). I’m not saying you should move it slow either. If you aren’t able to stop your limb from moving at any given point, you’re moving it too fast.

You should perform enough sets of 5-15 repetitions to hit your current full ROM (Kurz 2003). The actual stretches you should perform will depend on your activity.

Isometric Stretching

If you need high levels of static passive flexibility for your activity (BJJ, wrestling, yoga, etc) then you should train with isometric stretches.

In my opinion, you should have at least 6 months of productive full-body strength training under your belt before you start training isometric stretches. Do not neglect your hip abductors/adductors if you hope to train the splits. Do not neglect the muscles in and around your shoulder joints and scapulae if you hope to increase your shoulder mobility with isometric stretches.

IMPORTANT: If you are weak you will almost certainly tear one or several muscles while performing isometric stretches. If you get sore after isometric stretches you are too weak. Continue to build strength until you can perform an isometric stretch without feeling sore within the next two days (Clarkson et al. 1992).

You should think of isometric stretches as strength exercises because that’s what they are.

How Often Should You Do Isometric Stretches?

On any given day you should only train one isometric stretch per joint (Kurz 2003). Perform a sufficient number of repetitions to reach your full, pain-free, ROM. You should train isometrics 3-5 times per week (Wallin et al. 1985). Analyze your progress to see what works best for you. Increasing or decreasing the frequency of your training may positively affect your progress. 

Performing isometric stretches once per week may be enough to maintain your current level of flexibility (Wallin et al. 1985). If you notice a reduction in your ROM after entering the maintenance phase, just increase the frequency of your ‘maintenance stretches’.  

When Should You Do Isometric Stretches?

You should do isometric stretches after your workout. Your muscles are more relaxed after a workout (due to fatigue) and will relax into an isometric stretch more easily (Moller et al. 1985).

How Should You Do Isometric Stretches?

In my opinion and experience, the contract-relax-hold method yields the best results. This method consists of placing a joint under its deepest pain-free stretch, contracting the muscles being stretched for 5 to 6 seconds, then relaxing into a deeper pain-free stretch. Repeat this process until you reach the deepest pain-free stretch you can currently achieve. You should hold this final contraction for up to 30 seconds. 

You should perform 2 to 5 sets of this exercise. Play around with the number of sets to see what yields the best results for you (Kurz 2003).

Other Stretching

There are other ways to train different types of flexibility such as static active stretching and passive relaxed stretching which I won’t cover here. These other methods are very useful but for most athletes, these just aren’t required to see exceptional progress.

Note: See my recommended education if you’re interested in learning about these other methods.

Proper Form

When you’re doing a stretch you really need to make sure you’re using proper form. The same is true for strength and mobility training.

If you neglect proper form, you will deteriorate your body. It’s only a question of how fast. 

What Actually Happens When You Stretch?

There’s some debate about what actually changes when you stretch. Some believe that your nervous system needs to be trained to relax into a stretch (Magnusson et al. 1998). Others believe that the stretching causes the muscle’s mechanical properties to change (McHugh et al. 1998). A muscle cell can grow in length by laying down additional sarcomeres and a muscle can grow as a whole by increasing the number of muscle cells. Both neural and mechanical properties likely play a role in a muscle’s flexibility. 

Cutting Through The Bull Surrounding Stretching

Does Stretching Improve Posture?

Certain practices such as yoga and other forms of strength and mobility training can be very helpful for correcting minor displacements in your anatomy. Yoga increases strength, mobility, and flexibility – but the flexibility part will affect posture very little unless an already strong muscle is very tight. 

So no. Stretching a muscle does very little – if anything at all for your posture. 

Most people have bad posture due to muscular imbalances and chronic weaknesses.

Example: If you strengthen the anterior shoulder muscles and neglect the posterior shoulder and scapular muscles, you will likely develop poor posture: The stronger muscles located on the front of your shoulder are pulling your shoulder forward. At the same time, the weaker muscles located on the back of the shoulder are doing very little to pull the shoulder backward. Together, these can cause your back to become rounded, resulting in poor posture. 

A similar phenomenon can happen anywhere in the body. This is why I am an advocate for actively training close to every muscle in the body. You make slower progress at first, but the slow steady pace is actually faster, far more comfortable, and better for your anatomical health in the long term. 

Does Stretching Reduce Soreness?

Not really. 

Static stretching can increase blood flow to the muscles which may improve recovery (deVries 1961) but muscle soreness is almost always a result of muscular weakness. When you first start training strength, soreness is normal. However, after training strength for a few weeks to a few months, any soreness should be absent or very acute. 

Soreness can actually increase as a result of stretching a muscle too far too soon. If you feel sore as a result of stretching, stop stretching that muscle, and work on strengthening it instead. If the muscle is already strong and you still feel soreness, you probably went too far during a stretch (Kurz 2003).

Another common cause of soreness is overtraining. If you’re continually sore you can also try reducing the frequency, volume, and/or intensity of your exercises.

Does Stretching Heal Pain? Should I Stretch Tight Muscles?

There’s a widespread misconception that stretching can somehow heal chronic pain and is the best solution for tightness. 

Chronic pain and tight muscles are usually the results of muscular weakness in one way or another. This can be due to muscular imbalances (as I mentioned above) or simply a weak musculature. The answer to chronic muscle soreness and pain is rehabilitation and then strength training. Rehabilitation should not be done for only one muscle, as this will usually migrate the pain to a new area. In my opinion, you should be actively maintaining or improving the strength of every muscle in your body at any given time.

If you don’t know how to do this, you can leverage a reputable source’s knowledge by purchasing a training program or learn how to do this yourself. If you choose to do the latter, don’t hit the gym, hit the books. You can absolutely not create a safe and efficient training program without a basic physical education.

Does Stretching Relieve Stress?

It can but probably won’t. In my experience, the stress relief attained by stretching is very acute compared to the stress relief experienced from a complete training session (ie: strength or endurance training). 

You can experiment to see what works for you. In my opinion, life circumstances change far too rapidly to rely on stretching or strength training for peace of mind.

Does Stretching Increase Energy Levels?

It can. A morning stretch following a brief warm-up can increase your energy levels by ‘waking up’ the body – that’s been my experience. Other than this, stretching has had little, to no impact on my energy levels. After learning how to stretch, you can always try it out to see what works for you.

Is Stretching Any Good For Warm-ups?

No. A brief warm-up should precede any and all forms of physical training. That said, dynamic stretching can and should precede a workout as long as it proceeds a brief warm-up.

Is It A Bad Idea To Bounce During A Stretch?

Yes, it is a bad idea (Kurz 2003). An exception does exist: If your regular activities demand that your body be able to handle high-velocity movements that place the muscle under stretch (such as a high kick) then you should eventually train dynamic stretches at a higher velocity (Logan & McKinney 1970).

Does Stretching Reduce Cholesterol?

No. A few studies were taken out of context by some influencers. These studies stated that stretching in addition to better nutritional habits reduced cholesterol. Numerous studies have also been published which confirm time and time again that optimized nutrition plans reduce cholesterol to healthy levels. If you know that you have high cholesterol levels, the answer isn’t stretching it’s proper nutrition.

Will Stretching Allow Me To Move Around More Easily With Less Pain?

Yes, but only if your muscles are strong enough to be stretched. As I said before, chronic pain, soreness, and tightness of a muscle are usually caused by strength imbalances and muscular weakness. Stretching is only useful for individuals whose activities demand a greater ROM. 

Recommended Education

If you’re interested in learning more about how to stretch or you plan to create your own stretching program there are some great books that will show you how to do this.

My personal favorite is Stretching Scientifically by Thomas Kurz. This is an excellent book that will give you all the information you need to know to construct a stretching program regardless of your athletic background (or lack thereof).

Note: I will not profit from any sales of this book.

Final Thoughts

Stretching shouldn’t look the same for everyone. If you’re going to stretch don’t do it wrong, do it right.

I hope you found this helpful. If you have any questions or you’d like to see another topic covered in the near future, let me know in the comments below. 

Bibliography

Clarkson, P.M., Nosaka, K. and Braun, B., 1992. Muscle function after exercise-induced muscle damage and rapid adaptation. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 24(5), pp.512-520.

Craib, M.W., Mitchell, V.A., Fields, K.B., Cooper, T.R., Hopewell, R.E.G.I.N.A. and Morgan, D.W., 1996. The association between flexibility and running economy in sub-elite male distance runners. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 28(6), pp.737-743.

De Vries, H.A., 1961. Electromyographic observations of the effects of static stretching upon muscular distress. Research Quarterly. American Association for Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 32(4), pp.468-479

Logan, G.A., 1961. Effects of slow and fast stretching on the sacro-femoral angle. J Assoc Physical Mental Rehabil., 15, pp.85-89.

Logan, G.A. and McKinney, W.C., 1970. Kinesiology. WC Brown.

Magnusson, S.P., Simonsen, E.B., Aagaard, P., Dyhre-Poulsen, P., McHugh, M.P. and Kjaer, M., 1996. Mechanical and physiological responses to stretching with and without preisometric contraction in human skeletal muscle. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 77(4), pp.373-378.

Matveev, L.P. and Zdornyj, A.P., 1981. Fundamentals of sports training. Progress.

McHUGH, M.A.L.A.C.H.Y., KREMENIC, I., FOX, M. and GLEIM, G., 1998. The role of mechanical and neural restraints to joint range of motion during passive stretch. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(6), pp.928-932..

Möller, M.H.L., Öberg, B.E. and Gillquist, J., 1985. Stretching exercise and soccer: effect of stretching on range of motion in the lower extremity in connection with soccer training. International journal of sports medicine, 6(01), pp.50-52.

Kurz, T., 2003. Stretching Scientifically: A guide to flexibility training. Stadion Pub.

Wallin, D., Ekblom, B., Grahn, R., and Nordenborg, T., 1985. Improvement of muscle flexibility: a comparison between two techniques. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 13(4), pp.263-268.

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