Ok, don’t hate me, but I think stretching is a little over-hyped. Every single day I get asked about specific stretches for fill in the blank injury or sport. I’ve written an entire separate blog on the difference between mobility and stability and thus why the “if-it-hurts-just-stretch-it” philosophy is complete garbage when it comes to injuries. For the purposes of this blog, however, I want to clear up some confusion about mobility vs. flexibility and why you probably don’t need to be stretching as much as you think.
Before I go any further, I want to note that stretching is not bad by any means, but it is context-dependent and, in some instances, can actually work against you. So let’s start with some simple definitions:
Flexibility, put simply, is a muscle’s ability to stretch or lengthen, usually passively. Think about a rubber band. You can stretch a rubber band a decent amount without it breaking. This is because it has good pliability/flexibility. Someone with really flexible hamstrings probably can easily reach down and touch their toes.
Mobility, on the other hand, is a joint’s ability to move actively through a range of motion. This involves not only lengthening of the muscle, but also the joint itself moving within the joint capsule. For example, your squat depth is a general demonstration of hip and ankle mobility and doesn’t have as much to do with flexibility.
How much you need of each of these is ultimately sport/activity-specific. Like with most things, there’s not a one-size-fits-all, and the amount of stretching or mobility work you do should reflect your given sport and goals. Each sport requires different movements & positions, different amounts of cardiovascular endurance, different amounts of strength & power output, and therefore different levels of mobility. Ideally we want to see an optimal amount of mobility for our specific activity—no more than necessary, and certainly no less.
Let’s compare a baseball pitcher with an Olympic weightlifter. While both of these are considered overhead athletes, their specific movements within this umbrella vary greatly. Throwing a baseball is a much different beast than catching a barbell over your head. A pitcher will need a significantly different amount of external rotation in his shoulder than an Olympic weightlifter. As a result, their shoulder mobility routines should also look different.
Now back to stretching. Remember, stretching is the act of lengthening your muscles to improve flexibility. Here are some instances where stretching & flexibility are beneficial and necessary:
- Certain levels and types of yoga
- Any other activity that requires extreme positions like the splits or reaching your foot above your head.
On the other hand, here are some instances where stretching can actually work against you:
- Strength training
- Any other sport that requires a high degree of strength and power output
Why is this? You’ve maybe heard the term “stiffness” used in the world of strength training. In this context, stiffness is actually a desired and necessary thing. A certain degree of stiffness within a muscle is actually required to move large amounts of weight—you cannot be gumby and expect to pull 500lbs off the ground. Although there are always outliers, that’s usually just not how that works.
Remember our rubber band example from before? Let’s now compare that rubber band to a tightly-wound spring. Which would you guess is more likely to support or move a heavy load?
Without doing a deep dive into physics, and without over-simplifying a complex concept, in general in the human body, the more pliable a tissue, the less ability it has to move/withstand heavy load. We build strength and resistance in tissues by loading them, not just stretching them.
What does the research say about this? In several different studies, it has actually been shown that prolonged stretching (both static and PNF techniques) acutely and temporarily DECREASED strength and power output when performed prior to the workout/performance. (Read more for yourself here and here if you’re into that kinda thing).
So does this mean that if you’re a weightlifter or sprinter you can skip warming up? Definitely not. It does mean, however, that you should avoid prolonged static stretching prior to lifting if your goal is to gain strength. Your warm-up should still prime your body for the main movements you are about to perform, and this can be achieved better through dynamic mobility drills rather than just stretching the crap out of your hamstrings. (For a more in depth look at how to structure an efficient warm-up, read more here). But have no fear! If you’re someone who loves to stretch or do yoga, simply save it for after your workout or on rest/active recovery days.
So in conclusion, is stretching bad? Of course not, but it can be counterproductive in the improper context or timing. At the end of the day, what matters more than the nitty-gritties is that you’re moving your body—in any way. But for those looking to optimize their time or work toward specific goals, it can be helpful to know where to direct your energy and what to avoid. Hopefully this clears some things up and will help you stop shaming yourself for not spending an extra 20 minutes at the gym stretching before every workout. 😉
If you still have questions or concerns, you know where to find me! Head on over to the contact tab and let’s chat.