09 Nov How Much Do I Need To Stretch?
You probably have been told that you don’t spend enough time stretching. Whether it was by a coach, a physical therapist, or a doctor; you’ve probably heard that you could have prevented an injury by stretching more. You may have also been told that if you don’t start stretching more, you will get hurt again! Like most people, you probably took the time to go through a full stretching routine before your next couple of workouts but slowly returned to your old habit of not stretching. Well, I am here with some good news: you don’t need to spend more time stretching! This probably comes as a shock to a lot of you, so let’s tackle the myths behind the benefits of stretching one by one, ultimately helping you answer the question, “How much do I need to stretch?”.
Stretching Differences: Static vs. Dynamic
First, let’s make sure we establish a few definitions. Static stretching is a passive stretch of tissue through a full range of motion in a relaxed state. This is what we typically think of when someone says “stretching” and includes holding a stretched position for a long period of time (typically around 30 seconds). Examples include: bending forward to touch your toes, stretching your calf off the end of a step, or holding your elbow over your head with the opposite arm. In contrast: dynamic stretching is an active movement that typically takes you through a larger range of motion. This can include examples such as a walking lunge, bodyweight calisthenics, and many yoga positions that require sustained active holds. This article attempts to debunk the myths associated with static stretching without discouraging dynamic stretching which is entirely different. For the rest of this article, I will use the term “stretching” in place of static stretching as described above.
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We have a handful of [P]Rehab programs that put an extra emphasis on stretching exercises to improve mobility! Click here to learn more and scroll down to the mobility section to see what we have to offer. Below are some examples of dynamic stretches. There will also be examples of static stretches towards the end of the article.
World’s Greatest Stretch – Dynamic
- HOW: Follow along with the detailed video tutorial for all movement cues. This is a dynamic stretching routine, meaning you will be moving from different positions rather than just holding one position (which is more of a static stretch). We call this the World’s Greatest Stretch as it allows you to move through different, full body positions, and enhances mobility in many different areas of the body as a result!
- FEEL: During various positions of this stretching routine, you will feel stretching through your hamstrings, mid back, hip flexors, and even portions of your low back such as your quadratus lumborum!
- COMPENSATION: Do not try to “overstretch” with these movements. Allow your body to stay within whatever range feels best for you! As you perform this stretching routine more regularly, you will find that your mobility will improve as a result!
Hip 90/90 Internal Rotation Stretch – Dynamic
Begin in a seated position with one leg in front of your knee bent and your lower leg on the ground. The other leg is bent at the side. From here, rotate towards the side leg and slowly return back to the starting position. Repeat for the prescribed amount of reps.
Lat Stretch – Dynamic
Lean against a wall with your back flat and feet out with a slight bend in your knees. Raise both arms up as you rotate your hands out. Try to get your elbows to touch each other. Do this in a slow and controlled motion. You should feel a stretch in your lat muscles.
How Much Do I Need To Stretch: Does It Prevent injuries?
No! A variety of research trying to establish a link between decreased flexibility and increased injury risk has been conducted without any notable success. Many of these studies have focused on the sit-and-reach test which involves measuring how far forward one can reach their hands while sitting on the floor with legs extended. This is considered to be a measure of hamstring and low back flexibility and is recommended by The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) as part of a physical fitness testing battery.
Learn How To Stretch Your Hamstrings The Right Way!
A study of 37 Australian professional footballers sought to establish a link between preseason sit-and-reach testing and hamstring injuries found no correlation between the two. The same study did however find a significant association between preseason hamstring muscle weakness and hamstring strains.
A similar study of 450 amateur soccer players in the Netherlands also found no correlation between the sit and reach test and hamstring injuries. In another study, the authors found that adding the Nordic hamstring exercise significantly reduced players risk of sustaining a hamstring injury.
Taken together, this research allows us to firmly say that taking the time to stretch your hamstrings will not decrease your risk of injury!
How Much Do I Need Stretch: Will It help my performance?
No! You may need a certain level of flexibility to partake in some sports. For example, a baseball pitcher can’t throw a ball without the flexibility to reach behind his head and throw a strike and a dancer can’t reach her leg above her head without the requisite hip motion. However, these motions are accomplished through practice and repeatedly performing the movement, not by stretching into that movement. Numerous studies have shown that among participants increased flexibility is not associated with improved performance. These include studies of players in American football, Australian Football, Soccer, and Sprinting. One thing that has been consistently shown to improve performance in these and a variety of other studies is strength training!
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Is there any downside to stretching?
Unfortunately, yes! Recent research established that just 10 sessions of hamstring stretches, performed for a typical rep scheme of 3×30 seconds, decreased hamstring strength by an average of 7%! Furthermore, this also decreased functional athletic performance measured by distance on a single leg triple hop test! Given previous research establishing the links between strength and decreased injury risk, as well as strength and improved performance, the authors concluded that static stretching is likely to increase injury risk and decrease performance. It is crucial to note here that these negative effects were not found in a group that performed 10 sessions of dynamic stretches!
Is there ever a time to stretch?
Yes! If your goal is to be able to touch our toes – stretch! If your goal is to reach behind your head – stretch! If you are trying to improve your knee extension after a surgery– stretch! Essentially, if you are stretching for the explicit purpose of being able to reach into a further range of motion then by all means go ahead and stretch! However, if you are looking to improve your performance and decrease your risk of injury the science says strengthen, don’t stretch! Below are some examples of static stretches:
Static Wall Calf Stretch – Knee Bent
Get set-up standing with a wall in front of you and place your hands on the wall. Take a step back with the side you plan to stretch, let the knee be bent and keep it bent. While keeping the foot you stepped back with flat on the ground, knee bent, and toes facing 12 o’clock, slowly lean and shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch.
Static Standing Quadriceps Stretch
Get set-up standing. On the side you want to stretch, grab your foot and pull it back towards your butt by bending your knee. Keep a flat back, squeeze your butt muscle to push your hip forward, and have your knee directly below your hip. Hold this position.
Static 90/90 Hip Stretch
Get set-up in a 90/90 position. You can use a yoga block or other object under your front hip to get into the correct position (follow video for tips and details). Once set-up, keep your thighs, knees, and feet flat against the ground, lift your chest up to make your torso long, shift your weight forward until you feel a stretch, and hold that position.
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The proposed benefits of stretching are simply not backed by any science. However, research has shown that strength training both improves athletic performance and decreases injury risk. If you are looking to prepare for your sport or a strength training session it is best to go through a dynamic warmup routine that prepares you for the movements you intend to perform. Hopefully, this article saves you some time in the gym and spares you’re the guilt over skipping your pre-workout stretches!
About The Author
[P]rehab Writer & Content Creator
Tommy Mandala is currently a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Board Certified Sports Clinical Specialist at the Sports Rehabilitation and Performance Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Prior to that he completed a sports residency at the University of Delaware where he had opportunities to work with their Division I baseball team, as well as the Philadelphia 76’ers NBA G-league affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats. A former high school baseball player, this experience drove his interest in treating the throwing athlete and led him to pursue a rotation at Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham, Alabama to learn from leading baseball researchers in the American Sports Medicine Institute. While Tommy has a special interest in throwing athletes and ACL rehab, he believes that everyone should train like an athlete. As the son of an FDNY firefighter, he also has a passion for treating the occupational athlete. One of his favorite aspects of his job is teaching patients the proper form to allow them to continue doing the things they love in spite of an injury.