Hold on there gentle reader, don’t get mad at me!
Static, or held, stretching isn’t usually the panacea it’s cracked up to be.
It’s a fine thing to add into your movement diet. But it won’t always create your targeted outcomes.
Let’s break down three of the most common goals for stretching.
1) Aesthetic Changes
Alas, “lengthening your muscles” isn’t really a thing.
Anyone that says they can lengthen your muscles — by stretching or by a particular type of training — is misinformed. There’s literally no debate on this point and no one with any background in physiology would say this.
It’s not wrong to want a “long, lean, and toned” look. But that’s largely determined by your bone structure, where your muscles attach to your bones, and how lean you are. And of these three factors, you only have control over the last one. And this is largely achieved through your diet.
If we’re being very precise, it IS possible to make muscles ever so slightly longer. If you’re doing two to three 10-20 minute holds per day, you can make very modest increases in the length of a muscle. But this isn’t going to be practical for more people.
2) “Feeling” Tight/ Getting Out of Pain
Most people blame “tight hamstrings,” and/or “tight hip flexors,” and/or a “weak core” for any number of issues. But alas, there’s actually precious little evidence for this as a direct cause of joint pain, back or otherwise.
That said, if you’re noticing you have mobility limitations, it’s certainly worth addressing. Because when joints can’t articulate through a full range of motion, it can lead to issues if you’re looking to be an active human.
Furthermore, if you have a performance goal like sport or dance, limitations in mobility can prevent you from getting into certain positions.
So to be clear, increasing your mobility is a totally valid goal. You’re just not likely to make meaningful strides via static stretching.
Instead, accessing the end of your range of motion through movement is more likely to unlock these ranges of motion. This is why we coach Ninjas to use their full range of available motion while strength training exercises.
Mobility IS a worthy goal. But it’s important to actively express newfound ranges of motion via movement — rather than just passively stretching. This way your brain will give you continued access to any modest gains you make from any kind of mobility work. This is part of what we do dynamic mobility drills that include movement in all MFF warm-ups.
And if you’re really looking to unlock more range of motion? It may be worth talking to a qualified physical therapist. They have a whole set of tools like clinical massage work that’s outside the scope of fitness friends like your authero.*
* THIS WAS AN AUTO-CORRECT, BUT IT LOOKS LIKE I MADE AUTHOR AND HERO INTO A SINGLE WORD AND I’M STICKING TO IT.
3) It Feels Nice to Stretch
Ok, now I’m on board!
Listen, I don’t think stretching is going to hurt.
Admittedly, there IS research that suggests static stretching can create transient losses in strength and power. So I wouldn’t do it right before you compete in the broad jump.
But if you like to do some gentle static stretching as part of your cool down after a workout? Or along with some calming breathing before bed? I think that’s great. You’ll have no complaints from me here.
But as your trusty fitness professional pen pal, I must inform you it won’t give you a “long, lean, and toned” look. And it won’t create meaningful increases in your range of motion, at least without marrying it to full range of motion movement.
(And at the risk of dropping a bomb and walking away, most “tightness” is neural in nature. Which means you’ll probably get better results doing breathing exercises that can tone down your nervous system. But we’ll leave that for another day! :-))
Loving your joints and bones and muscles,
PS This is the part where I invite you to work with your friends at MFF if you want some friendly fitness experts to help you with your mobility. 🙂