Stretching vs Strengthening
Updated: Nov 2
Muscles arguably have one main function, they create force. This allows us to function as humans eg so that we can walk, run, jump, climb, eat etc. Muscles absorb forces as well, and they store energy/fuel, but primarily if they cant create any force we cant do anything.
When clients come to us with pain and a feeling of tightness in an area their natural assumption is they need to stretch. Tension and pain are not directly related. Often the tension in a muscle is related to poor resilience or strength in that area. As we say "stretching wont strengthen a muscle".
It's important to know that flexibility is not a measure of physical fitness. In fact 20% of the population has a degree of "hypermobility". This means their joints move a lot! They have a degree of excess flexibility. This part of the population really doesn't need to stretch and in fact may feel worse from stretching, yet they still perceive pain and "tension" in areas. There are some simple physical tests we can use to determine if you are in this 20%. There is a screening test which gives you a "Beighton" score. Click here for more info on this.
Lets Look at the Case for Retiring Flexibility as Major Component of Physical Fitness
Here is a list of categories that relate to physical fitness;
Aging, falls, activities of daily living, gait (walking/running)
Quality of life
Injury and Pain
Cardiovascular Outcomes (blood pressure, resting heart rate, cholesterol)
Now in studies measuring all of these with flexibility vs muscle strength and endurance. Flexibility almost had no positive correlation with any category. The only one it did was quality of life however muscle strength and endurance gave a much higher score for quality of life. So in summary flexibility wont help with any of these (except for quality of life, however strength wins out here anyway).
When it comes to sports performance high levels of flexibility may increase your risk of injury!
Not that flexibility is an outcome we are seeking. But interestingly flexibility will increase with strength and aerobic training more than just "stretching" anyway.
Should I quit Stretching??
Not necessarily. But the aim of this blog is take all the emphasis off stretching. Particularly as we notice many clients tell us that they aren't stretching enough, and this is why they have their problem. This is untrue and as we stated above stretching with hypermobility can make you more prone to injury and pain.
However stretching has some benefits which people may not have thought of, parasympathetic nerve activity can be improved with stretching - this is the rest and digest part of the our nervous system; it can help promote relaxation. This can help restore our bodies homeostasis, decrease stress hormones and have a positive effect on sleep, all important in helping our body recover and process pain.
A lot of time could be saved and much better health outcomes would be had by putting our emphasis onto muscular strength and endurance.
What about Yoga?
Yoga isn't just about stretching. There are strength and balance components to yoga as well as mindfulness and the relaxation component. True some yoga moves involve strong stretching but we would question the purpose of these stretches knowing what the research is telling us.
Don't you stretch me during treatments?
Sometimes specific stretches to an area or joint may be applied during a consult but they are not prolonged. These stretch type movements we use are also a diagnostic tool to assess the quality of movement and determining what movements may be causing pain.
Occasionally a specific stretch may be prescribed to a patient early in treatment to encourage more confidence in movement but we wont prescribe these as a long term option
So stretching for a few minutes at the end of the day to help calm you down is fine, however if we have long term pain and an 'injury' we are much better off focusing our precious time and energy on creating more resilience and strength within the body. Strengthen to lengthen!
Nuzzo, J.L. Sports Med (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-019-01248-w