Does Stretching Help?

By Matt Paulus, MS, ATC, LAT

Does Stretching Really Help?

For years, stretching or flexibility has been widely considered a cornerstone of health and fitness. Many of us stretch before or after every workout and fuss if we can’t lean over and touch our toes. We wonder how some people can wrap their legs around their heads in yoga class.

image of Woman stretching her triceps

Stretching is very important to have a healthy body.

We probably also think that those people never get hurt because they are so flexible, but there’s not much scientific support for that. In fact, the latest science suggests that extremely loose muscles and tendons are generally unnecessary and may be achievable anyway. To a large degree, flexibility is genetic. You’re either born flexible, or you’re not.                                            

What Happens to my muscles when I stretch?

What happens to our muscles and tendons when we religiously stretch before a run or other workout? Does this lengthen our muscles? Increase our flexibility? Improve our range of motion?  There are two elements involved in stretching a muscle. One is the muscle itself. The other is the mind, which sends various messages to the muscles and tendons, telling them how to respond to your stretching when the discomfort of the stretch becomes too much.

What changes as you stretch a muscle is primarily the message, not the physical structure of the muscle. You’ll start to develop a tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. Your brain will allow you to hold the stretch longer, but the muscles and tendons themselves will not have changed much. You will feel less tight, but even this sensation of elasticity is short-lived.

Image of seated hamstring stretch

Image of a hamstring stretch.

How long should I be stretching?

In a new review article on the effects of stretching in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, they looked at the measurable impacts of several different stretching regimens.  They found that when people performed four 90-second stretches of their hamstrings, their “passive resistance” to the stretching decreased by about 18 percent. This meant that they felt much looser, but unfortunately, the effect had passed in less than an hour. To achieve a longer-lasting impact and to stretch all of the muscles involved in running or other sports, a person would probably require as much as an hour of concentrated stretching. To see changes in the actual physical structure of the muscles, it would take months of stretching, for hours at a time. Another interesting conclusion from the research shows that you only need enough range of motion in your joints to avoid injury. More is not necessarily better.

How should you judge your own flexibility?

Research suggests that the sit-and-reach test is pretty good for at-home evaluations (at least for your back and hamstring muscles).

  • Using a staircase, sit and straighten your legs so that your feet push against the bottom step, toes upright. Stretch forward and try to lay your chest onto your thighs. If you can reach past your toes, you’re more than flexible enough. If, on the other hand, you can’t get anywhere near your toes, you might need to try and increase your hamstring flexibility to avoid injuring yourself while running, cycling, or otherwise exercising.
  • You can find multiple hamstrings stretches on YouTube, although you should consult with a physical therapist before replicating them at home. Proper technique is important to avoiding injury. You might not get a lot of change, but a little may be all you need.

Related Articles: Hamstring Stretch, Calf Stretching, FlexibilityBest Hamstring Stretches and Direct Access to Physical Therapy.

JOI offers Optimal Stretch, a table-based assisted stretching and manual therapy system that focuses on the fascia and mobilization of the joint capsule as the key elements in achieving optimal flexibility, strength, performance, and pain relief. To book an appointment, please call 904-858-7045.

Author: Matt Paulus, MS, ATC, LAT

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