Stretching is commonly performed before sports, and most of us have at some point had thought that perhaps stretching would be beneficial, perhaps making us feel more mobile or less achey. But what does the science say?
Static stretching is the most common method of stretching, involving holding a pose that places strain on a muscle for a length of time. As well as being carried out prior to and after sports, stretching is often given as a method of injury prevention and rehabilitation.
But the research on stretching is not all that supportive.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, stretching does not lead to muscle lengthening. Instead, gains in flexibility following a stretching regime result from a decrease in sensitivity, allowing one to move further before a tight sensation is felt.
One clear effect of stretching is that it reduces the excitability of the nerves controlling muscles, and therefore the power output of a stretched muscle is decreased. Stretching also causes minor amounts of tissue damage, leaving a muscle slightly more vulnerable immediately afterwards.
These bi-products not only limit performance, but also increase injury risk and it is for this reason that stretching should not be carried out before sports.
There are times when stretching can be useful. If your body is relying on certain muscles to carry out a movement and “forgetting” to use others, we can use specific stretches to inhibit the muscles that are dominant, forcing your body to activate the less commonly used muscles.
This is a very effective way at retraining movement patterns and restoring muscle balance. It is important that these stretches are prescribed by a chiropractor or other manual therapist. Often the muscles you think you need to stretch are not those that will most benefit. As with all training and injury prevention, specificity is key!