I’ve heard tons of different arguments for and against stretching. When I was a wee lad learning to breakdance, I spent tons of time stretching, because it makes you more flexible. Duh right?!?! Recently I’ve heard some advice to the contrary though. Let’s dig a little deeper.
“Should I stretch before the workout? After the workout? Both?”
“How long should I hold a stretch? Should I stretch everyday?”
“Is there such a thing as too much stretching?”
“Does stretching even work anyway? I have been stretching for years and still can’t touch my toes!”
Different coaches will give you very different answers to the above questions…
There are some who say stretching is necessary to help avoid injuries. (But, of course, even if you stretch, if the load placed on a part of your body is greater than the capacity of that muscle or joint, injury is likely the result). The argument here is that if you’re able to improve the range of motion of a particular joint, then you’ll be able to tolerate more load on that joint, and decrease your chance of injury.
This brings me to the other most common reason to stretch, as I said before: It makes you more flexible. When we consider gymnasts and yogis, who are both known to stretch a lot and be very flexible, it seems obvious that stretching helps you improve your range of motion. But, there’s a whole other school of thought that questions whether this is true. In fact, they question whether static stretching is useful at all.
One of these skeptics is strength and conditioning coach Charlie Reid.
In this blog post, he talks about thee reasons people tend to think they need to stretch:
- They feel tight
- They want to avoid injury
- They want to become more flexible
To the tightness argument, he says “Tightness may be less about the structural limitation and more about your perception.” He says that while stretching might help in the short term, it’s not a long term solution to making you less tight.
As for the avoiding injury argument, he denies it and offers better solutions to avoid injuries, such as honing in your movement mechanics and selecting proper progressions that reflect your fitness level.
Finally, as for the obvious stretching making you more flexible, he doesn’t agree. Or at least, it doesn’t help in a useful way. He does, however, acknowledge the ‘stretch tolerance’ concept.
The stretch tolerance principle says that the only way stretching makes you more flexible is by convincing your nervous system to become OK with certain range of motions. Your nervous system is designed to protect you, so if it feels threatened by a certain range of motion it will stop you from going there. The idea here is that the more you stretch, the more your nervous systems starts to say to your body, “You’re good. You’re not under serious threat,” which then allows you to gain a little more range of motion.
But Reid says that even if your nervous system does start to chill out and give you a little more range of motion as you static stretch, that this new range of motion doesn’t translate into active movements you do at the gym or in life. In other words, you might be able to go a little deeper into the splits, but that doesn’t mean that you can lift your leg any higher while you’re standing. It’s just flexibility for the sake of flexibility, it’s not helping you in any practical way. This is the difference between flexibility and mobility, mobility being the ability to actively get into an extended range of motion, rather than passively force yourself into that range of motion.
Check out this infographic below for more about what he has to say:
Take a second and reread the “movement variability” section. This is one of my biggest gripes with a typical CrossFit program, as most of the movements occur in sagittal plane (up and down). Which is why we take so much care to include a variety of movements in our program. There are better ways to do CrossFit.
Also, take a glance at the “eccentric contractions” section. If you’ve ever followed tempo prescriptions during training then you’ve probably experienced an increase in range of motion. There’s a method to the madness guys, it’s not just because we like torturing you… well maybe a little bit 🙂
So where does this leave us? Again, it’s a bit like diet. There really is no one-size fits all approach. Trial and error and using your body as a guinea pig is the best approach. If you feel like doing a couch stretch after a workout helps you, then do it!
We’ll see you in health!