We learned about all important stretching in our sixth grade gym class. Our coaches would have us touch our toes, twist our torsos and perform obligatory jumping jacks. It got the blood flowing and the tendons loosened. Stretching before any vigorous activity became entrenched in our collective unconsciousness and no one questioned it since. Until recently, when sports and exercise researchers began finding that static stretching is not only not good for us, but it can make our muscles weaker.
It’s confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. Some old truths simply fade away, and some are done away with when science takes a clear-eyed look at the subject. Stretching supposedly warmed the muscles and improved overall flexibility. The object was to move the body, say, touch the toes, and then hold the stretch for 30 seconds. This was called static stretching and it was thought to get the muscles warmed and toughened up for a workout. However, static stretching doesn’t prime the muscles or make them stronger; it actually weakens them, as discovered in a University of Nevada study. Other studies found that static stretching decreased muscle strength by 30 percent.
What all these studies reveal is that static stretching weakens muscles, and worse, it doesn’t prevent muscle soreness or injury. The other long standing beliefs about stretching didn’t hold true either. While stretching does improve flexibility and range of motion, it doesn’t enhance coordination, improve circulation or relieve tension. There’s a time and place for stretching, which is actually after exercising or performance rather than before.
There has been some research into the connection between natural hormone therapy and stretching. While the studies are happening, nothing conclusive has yet been determined.
Before beginning a strenuous activity, you don’t need to stretch, you need to loosen up the muscles, get the blood flowing and warm up the body. Dilated blood vessels and warmed muscles efficiently pull oxygen from the bloodstream, getting your body ready for vigorous action. Now you’re ready to run, play ball, wrestle an opponent to the ground or run up and down stairs. After a good workout, it’s time to slow down, relax those tense muscles and move slowly into stretches. The warmth of your body will lengthen body tissues and increase joint flexibility.
While our beliefs about stretching turned out to be unscientific, the idea that stretching is actively harmful isn’t correct either. It turns out that a good stretch is better for you after your workout rather than before. You’ll still need to warm up for a good exercise bout, but it’s more about revving up the blood and muscles so they’re more efficient. Leave working out kinks, flexing the joints and relaxing the muscles until later.