Ever been told you should stretch more often?
Most of us have.
But, despite the fact that many experts promote stretching as the single best way to prevent injuries & reduce aches and pains…
The truth is, it’s not.
Not by a longshot.
In fact, when you put the science on stretching under a microscope, the results are nothing short of shocking.
But why is that?
How have we all been fooled into believing stretching works for eliminating aches & pains, improving flexibility, and reducing injuries?
And — more importantly — why does stretching FEEL like it’s “doing something,” when studies show it’s not really doing much of anything?
Before I reveal the answers to these questions… along with what to do instead for lasting relief from aches & pains, as well as general wellbeing…
Let’s start by reviewing a few things first.
It might surprise you to learn that some muscles are biomechanically impossible to stretch.
Yep, you heard that right: Some muscles simply can’t be stretched, no matter how much you try to push, pull, tweak, or torque them.
Let me explain:
Your ability to stretch any muscle is limited by something else — your joints. Just like the way your ability to open a door is limited by its hinges. The hinges only allow the door to be opened so far. And it’s the same thing with your muscles.
Now here’s the kicker:
Even in muscles you can stretch, limitations in flexibility are often NOT caused by muscles themselves. Instead, they’re caused by something else, which I’ll talk more about in just a moment.
First, let’s set aside the technical stuff and talk about why people think stretching is a good idea.
When most people say “stretching,” they’re usually referring to static stretching.
That is, moving a muscle into a stretched position, and then holding it for a while. And for the purposes of this article, that’s what we’re going to stick to.
So, why do people recommend stretching?
It boils down to one of three reasons:
Supposed Stretching Benefit #1: It helps warm up your muscles
Supposed Stretching Benefit #2: It helps prevent or reduce muscle soreness
Supposed Stretching Benefit #3: It helps prevent or reduce injuries
Now, these all sound pretty logical, right?
By “loosening” up your muscles before physical activity, and intermittently throughout the day, you’ll be less likely to injure yourself. Or, in other words:
More flexibility = fewer injuries.
But is it true? What does the evidence say?
Let’s have a look.
Warming up your muscles before you use them can help to reduce injuries.
That’s been widely accepted in the scientific community for years now.
But, is stretching an effective way to warm up those muscles?
No. It’s not.
Ask yourself this:
Does tugging on a 12 ounce ribeye before you throw it on the BBQ do anything to increase its internal temperature?
Of course not.
Which is why it’s no surprise that a systematic review of over 4500 studies on stretching, conducted in 2011 and published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that:
“Overwhelming evidence that stretch durations of 30-45 seconds… imparted no significant effect.”
The reality is, you’re likely much better off doing some kind of mild physical activity (that involves movement) to warm up your muscles before exercise, like walking or skipping rope.
Muscle soreness after exercise can be pretty uncomfortable.
And stretching those sore muscles can be really uncomfortable. But, despite that, many people still believe stretching is an effective way to reduce the muscle soreness following a workout.
Well, another systematic review from 2011, designed to identify the effects of stretching on post-exercise muscle soreness, came to this conclusion:
“The evidence from randomised studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.”
Stretching didn’t deliver on the supposed benefit of reducing soreness. Even when done before AND after the workout!
The more flexible you are, the less likely you are to get injured — that’s the idea behind stretching advice.
Is it true?
…Not so much.
A large 2005 review of the evidence, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, found that “stretching had no effect in reducing injuries.”
Another study conducted in 2008, and published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, came to the same conclusion.
Here’s how they set that one up:
Researchers took 1020 soldiers going through basic training, and split them into two groups.
Group 1 did a 15-minute routine (that included stretching & flexibility exercises) three times a week.
Group 2 (the control group) did nothing for flexibility or injury prevention.
After 3 months of basic training, 50 soldiers from Group 1 sustained a lower limb injury, including knee pain and shin splints.
Meanwhile, only 48 soldiers from Group 2 sustained a lower limb injury.
Can you believe that?
The group of soldiers stretching 3 times a week sustained slightly MORE injuries than the group doing nothing at all!
Let’s face it: When you’ve got a tight muscle that’s bothering you, stretching it out often does “feel” like it’s doing something.
But what is that “feeling,” really?
Before I answer that, let’s backtrack for a second:
Most muscles aren’t tight because they’re short (i.e. inflexible) but because they’re stiff. It’s not a lack of flexibility limiting your range of motion in this case. It’s stiffness. And stiffness is a sensation. It’s a feeling. One that is NOT tied to your flexibility.
So naturally, when you stretch a stiff muscle, it feels like you’re getting relief.
It feels like the right thing to do.
But is that stretch actually doing anything to make that stiffness go away?
Spoiler alert: Probably not.
That’s because the cause of muscle stiffness has nothing to do with flexibility, and everything to do with another one of your body’s systems.
If a lack of flexibility ISN’T the cause of tight muscles, what is?
Your nervous system.
Your muscles are controlled by electrical signals they get from your nervous system. If the nervous system tells a muscle to be tight, it’s tight. If the nervous system tells a muscle to be loose, it’s loose.
“So what makes the nervous system tell a muscle to be tight or loose?”
Your nervous system is constantly getting inputs from thousands of receptors all over your body. So in order to make a lasting change to the stiffness of a muscle, you need to affect the nervous system.
Something stretching simply can’t do.
Because even if you sink into a deep and intense stretch for 1-2 minutes, it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the forces acting on your muscles the rest of the time.
I’m talking about the way you sit.
The way you stand.
The way you sleep.
Your movement patterns.
Things you do for HOURS at a time. Or movements you repeat countless times each day. Because the impact of these things are MUCH bigger than a quick stretch.
Now let me ask you this:
Ever gone in for a massage, chiropractic appointment, or yoga class… gotten some relief… but then felt the pain come right back a few days (or even hours) later?
That’s because working on muscles this way is temporary. It never sticks. It only tackles what’s happening on the surface. And if you don’t change the underlying state of your nervous system, then your aches & pains aren’t going anywhere.
Not until you learn how to address the root issue, that is.
Now that you understand how muscles become stiff and tight in the first place… and why stretching doesn’t actually work the way most people think it does…
Let’s talk about what to do instead.
As I mentioned above, the secret to unlocking stiff & tight muscles lies with the nervous system, and getting it to dial back stiffness straight from the source.
Unfortunately, most trainers, therapists, and bodyworkers have NO idea how to do this properly.
In fact, many aggressive treatment approaches (including stretching) can make muscle & joint pain even worse!
That’s why a revolutionary new approach recently caught my eye.
It’s a series of simple movements anyone can do (even if you’re at home with little to no equipment) that are proven to “unlock” stiff, tight, or painful muscles and restore proper movement patterns.
The inventor, a leading physical therapist based in Boulder, Colorado, was even able to help one of his patients walk out without her wheelchair in just 30 minutes!
And if you’re struggling with aches & pains, rehabbing an old injury, or simply want to learn more about how to take better care of your body, I think you should check it out.
Now, we want to know where YOU stand.
Do you still plan to stick to your stretching routine? Or did this article change your mind?
Comment below and let us know what you think!
1. Quite a Stretch. https://www.painscience.com/articles/stretching.php
2. Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21659901
3. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21735398
4. Effect of stretching on sport injury risk: a review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15782063
5. Prevention of overuse injuries by a concurrent exercise program in subjects exposed to an increase in training load: a randomized controlled trial of 1020 army recruits. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18337359