The jury is still out on static stretching (except this author, who quit the jury room a while ago to go to the pub), but a lot of people are very attached to it so let’s have a look.
Muscles are elastic, so if you reach for your toes for 30 seconds, you’ll get a little bit closer to them. Yay #mobilitygainz! But tomorrow/next week/next year you’ll reach again and they’ll be just as far away… So what have you really gained?
Your muscles are changing constantly depending on what you do. So if you go “hey I need you to lengthen out just for this minute”, they will. Problems arise when you’re also telling them “hey we mostly just need to sit in this chair” or “if we quarter-rep this bench press I can get an extra plate on.”
If you spend 1% of your time passively trying to get into positions that you want, but that you don’t actively load, train or use for the other 99%, is it really worth your muscles’ time to change?
Why the Hating on Static Stretching?
- It’s is boring and it takes too long
OK “boring” is subjective, but if the minimum hold for a stretch is 30-120 seconds, and you want to mobilise your ankles, knees, hips, spine, shoulders, neck and arms in several planes of motion each... And you’ll have to do it every day for weeks or months to see results… And you’ll start losing your gains immediately if you slack off… I’ll be at the pub.
- It’s not as effective as we’ve been lead to believe.
Not that it’s totally ineffective, just that there may be better alternatives. This is often where the gymnasts-and-dancers-stretch-heaps-and-they’re-super-flexy argument comes up. Yes, many flexible people spend a lot of time stretching - but they also move into, train and strengthen that entire range of movement. So can we expect the same results on half of their method?
- It doesn’t do what we’ve been lead to believe (change muscle length)
Stretching seems to work on a neuromuscular level – it increases the central nervous system’s tolerance to the stretch and decreases its perception of positions as “dangerous”. But it does not create plastic change in muscle tissue, only elastic. Meaning the muscle will always return to its resting length. Oh wait sorry, some evidence of length growth in muscle fibres has been found in studies … of protocols with holds of TWENTY TO THIRTY MINUTES.
- It acutely reduces strength, power and speed
This is not news: static stretches performed for 45 seconds or more appear to lead to meaningful acute reductions in performance tasks.
That is, the muscle will be temporarily weaker, slower and/or less powerful after a static stretch (5-7% reduction in maximal voluntary contraction and rate of force development, if you must know). Reductions in running and jumping performance are also observed due to relaxed muscles absorbing energy rather than rebounding it.
So, What are The Alternatives?
There are truckloads of active stretching/mobilisation techniques: Dynamic Stretching, Ballistic Stretching, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, Loaded Progressive Stretching, etc. etc. The difference is that these methods involve contracting the muscle throughout its entire range. This works towards strengthening that range, creating that plastic change in muscle length, and to convince the central nervous system that those lengthened positions are not only safe to go into, but that you’re going to need to be strong in them too.
Strength and hypertrophy training works on the principle of progressive overload. That is, perform a task that’s a bit too hard, which will cause slight muscle damage, which will be repaired with reinforcement so it’s ready for the next time that task comes up. Muscle gets bigger and stronger.
Let’s apply that principle to muscle length. Muscles are made of fibres, which are made of sarcomeres. If the task requires the muscle to lengthen as it’s contracting, then the repair will be made by adding sarcomeres in series (end to end) preferentially to adding them in parallel (side by side). Muscle gets longer and stronger.
This would be the difference between stretching a band to the length you need, versus making a longer band.
Bonus: eccentric training is also dynamite for strength, and great for bulletproofing connective tissues, plus it’s challenging, movement-based and time-effective.
Some ideal movements for eccentric training: calf raises, RDLs, leg extensions, pullups, chin-ups, dips, and more.
The beauty and the great big secret of training is that almost* everything works. (*not the really dumb shit. Be safe kids).
Your body will adapt - sooner or later - to accommodate anything you habitually do.
As a millennial with zero attention span, way too many training goals and limited time – I’d choose sooner.
The key to lasting mobility is finding a method that gives you time-effective and measurable results so that you make it a part of your training habits for life. So if stretching makes you happy and flexy, then that’s awesome. But if haven’t been able to get the mobility you want, then do some research and give something else a try – I would love to hear what you think in the comments (?).
Peta is the head Remedial massage therapist at Evolutio. She's been coaching CrossFit for several years and is a qualified S&C coach. Peta works Mondays and Thursday afternoons at our new clinic in Richmond and will soon be working Fridays. You can book in with her here or follow her sweet instagram @peta_glastier
The Effects of Active and Passive Stretching on Muscle Length
Increasing muscle extensibility: a matter of increasing length or modifying sensation?https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20075147
Does Stretching Really Change Muscle Length ?
Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation
Effects of Differing Instensities of Static Stretching on Jump Performance
‘Stretching increases flexibility by altering the sensation of stretching such that stretch tolerance or the onset of pain occur at greater joint angles and does not change the actual mechanical properties of muscle or the point at which the stretch reflex is activated. This implies that where the optimum length of a muscle needs to be altered, this cannot be performed using stretching and eccentric training is needed instead.’
Does Stretching Really Change Muscle Length ?