Depending on how long you’ve worked in the fitness industry, you’ve probably been through a few iterations of stretching versus flexibility versus mobility. We all want our clients and participants to benefit from pain-free movement and are drawn to theories, systems, and tools that can support it.
As a Yoga teacher, I constantly get asked which movement, or asana, helps “stretch” which muscle by my clients, and my answer is rarely as simple as they’d like it to be. My colleague Mai-Linh Dovan from Rehab-U wrote this comprehensive article that helped me reframe the concept, I hope it does the same for you.
I used to be a track athlete. That is the sport that introduced me to stretching. It is just one of the sports I was involved in, but definitely the one I trained the most seriously for. As a matter of fact, in my early University years (I’m talking way back in 1996, ouch), I was named student-athlete of the year. I’ve always wondered when I would be able to plug that achievement! More importantly, track is also the sport that introduced me to training.
Back in the day, we used static stretching before and after every practice like it was a religion. The coaches insisted on the importance of stretching for injury prevention.
Fast forward to a few years later and we started to say that static stretching wasn’t actually the best way to go, especially for explosive activities or sports – like sprinting. Nowadays, you might even hear people say static stretching, especially if it is performance before an activity, can increase your risk of injury. Should we even be stretching before activity? Who knows anymore?
How on earth did we go from injury prevention all the way to increasing the risk of injury?
Classic fitness industry extremism. It seems it’s always all or nothing in this industry.
Perhaps we see static stretching as negative because we categorize it as passive, and we tend to view passivity as a negative when we talk about movement.
In reality, it is likely the outcomes of stretching tissues wrongly or approaching flexibility from a limited point of view that creates much of the confusion around the risks and benefits of stretching.
Let’s look into what exactly stretching does and from there, answer the question is stretching good or bad.
What does stretching do?
The goal of stretching has always been to improve flexibility. Flexibility is commonly defined as the ability of a muscle to be passively lengthened. More specifically, it is the ability to move a joint through a full, non-restricted, pain-free range of motion. As such, it is dependent on both joint motion as well as the ability of the musculotendinous unit to lengthen.
Muscle tone has an impact on this ability. Normal muscle tone, or the amount of tension (or tightness) a muscle has at rest, must be high enough to resist the effects of gravity in posture and movement, but low enough to allow freedom of movement.
Increased muscle tone, or muscle “tightness”, results from an increase in tension from active or passive mechanisms. Passively, muscles can become shortened through postural adaptation or scarring.
Now, because muscles and tendons are composed largely of collagen fibers, they have the capacity to recover normal length and shape after elongation and deformation. But they also have plasticity, the capacity for permanent change. Static stretching, which holds the muscle at a constant length allows for viscoelastic and plastic changes to occur in the collagen.
What’s more, static stretching results in a gradual decline of the stress or force at that length and can also down-regulate muscles with increased tone or spasticity. Studies have also indicated that static stretching may result in an altered perception of stretch and increased tolerance to stretch, both of which can result in an increased range of motion.
Stretching for Mobility
Today, mobility is the quality that steals the show.
And with reason, because as you can see, stretching and flexibility are not really the point in the end, movement capacity is.
What we have failed to effectively communicate throughout the industry is that mobility is made up of several components.
Mobility is an emergent quality that cannot be trained directly.
Emergence occurs when something is observed to have properties that its individual components do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge only when the components interact as a whole.
Mobility is like that. Mobility is a combination of range of motion and movement, which involves motor control, strength, and even skill. This means that there are PASSIVE as well as active components to mobility:
RANGE OF MOTION
Address muscle tone and joint motion
Engage clients to move in very specific and deliberate ways
Apply intentional force into newfound ranges
MOBILIZATION 🡪 ACTIVATION 🡪 INTEGRATION
As you can see, limitations in range of motion need to be addressed to improve mobility. As such, if muscle tone is limiting range of motion, static stretching is indeed a tool that can be used to address this.
How can we use the effects of stretching?
Regaining muscle function, active range, control and strength that will emerge into improved mobility requires active participation that passive modalities alone do not provide. While stretching may help your clients gain range of motion, they also need to be engaged to move in very specific and deliberate ways and challenged to apply intentional force into newfound ranges.
Let’s use a very simple practical example to see how all of this comes together. If someone lacks shoulder mobility, having them stretch their pecs in the squat rack is not likely to create lasting changes. But, there are elements of stretching that can contribute to improving their shoulder mobility.
One muscle that is commonly “tight” (hypertonic, facilitated) from postural adaptation, faulty breathing mechanics and the likes, is the pec minor.
Here’s how using a static stretching for the pec minor in a Movement Optimization Strategy can help improve shoulder mobility:
In the Mobilization sequence, the objective is to create space by addressing factors that can limit range of motion. This is where we can address muscle tone and joint motion.
Because the pec minor holds the scapula in anterior tilt, it limits shoulder flexion range of motion. Using a supine passive pec minor stretch on a foam roller helps decrease the tonicity of the pec minor.
The objective of the Activation sequence is to create awareness to strengthen connections to form the elements of a particular behavior or movement. This is where we can engage clients to move in very specific and deliberate ways.
The reach, roll & lift is a very effective exercise to bring awareness to scapula upward rotation and posterior tilt.
In the Integration sequence, we are looking to create behavior. This is where we have clients apply intentional force into newfound ranges, postures, or positions.
The pike & reach is a great way to load the shoulder in flexion and strengthen scapula protraction, upward rotation and posterior tilt. If this was too difficult, you could simply move from a push-up to a pike position without the reach.
So…is stretching good or bad?
Many of the negative outcomes of studies on stretching are due to the fact that only the conclusions, not the details of the studies are popularized. While static stretching may be bad for one specific muscle relative to the completion of one specific task, this does not make all static stretching bad. Stretching makes sense if you have a task in mind that can benefit from the response. Whether it can prevent or increase the risk of injury is merely contextual.
Stretching is a means to help your clients become more capable of movement because its outcomes have a contribution to the emergence of mobility. Just like any tool, it is only part of creating lasting changes.
Stretching alone won’t improve mobility, but neither will any other tool by itself, like foam rolling, smashing, or cupping. That does not mean we need to throw the individual tool out the window. Just because you don’t need a hammer for the task at hand, doesn’t make the hammer useless. The key is to become better at identifying the right tool for the right task.
Don’t confuse your tools with your practice.
As a trainer or therapist, a large part of your practice is improving movement. It is your practice that will create the outcome, and within your practice you will use many tools. My best advice for achieving the best possible outcomes is to avoid thinking in absolutes. Stretching is not inherently useless or bad if it is utilized within the right strategy.
Mai-Linh recently launched an online course called Mobility Fundamentals and has kindly provided me a $50 discount to share with my fitfam 😊. Click here for more information and to access your exclusive discount using code NATHALIE50!
Page, P. (2012) Current Concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2012. 7(1), pp. 109-119.
Prentice, W. (2011). Rehabilitation techniques for sports medicine and athletic training (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.