Strength Stretching!

Stretching is one of those things you either love or hate to do. Personally, I hate it, I find it boring, awkward, and generally a waste of time, also I find it never makes any difference in my flexibility.

Yet all the gurus, yogis, supple leopards, and flexible floppies out there tell us that stretching is essential for your health, well being and for the prevention of injury. However, this is just not the case at all.

First, how flexible someone is or is not, is not a useful or reliable measure of their health, wellness, or athleticism (ref). Flexibility is a trait dictated by many factors such as our activity levels, but more so our genetics (ref). Also stretching has been shown not to be the most effective way to reduce injuries, especially in runners who seem to want to do it the most (ref, ref).

Yet despite this many think stretching is the key to life, love, and success and so twist and contort themselves into some eye-popping positions, and suggest others do the same. But there are many misconceptions around stretching and I want to discuss a few of these as well as propose a different way to look at stretching… something I call ‘strength stretching’!

What is Stretching?

Stretching is done in many different ways such as the most common static holds, or more active, dynamic, and ballistic ways. There are also some other fancier methods such as contract and relax, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation or PNF for short, as well as other methods with acronyms such as PAILs, RAILs, and CARS

However, regardless of what type of stretching you do, they are all designed to help improve your flexibility and prepare you and warm the bodies soft tissues and joints up for sporting activities and reduce the risk of pulling or tweaking something.

stretching

However, as already mentioned research has shown that stretching doesn’t really significantly improve your performance or reduce your risk of injury for most sports, with the exception of a few sports where joint end of ranges are routinely reached such as in gymnastics or martial arts (ref, ref, ref). But most other sports such as running or gym-based activities stretching just doesn’t reduce injury or make you perform better, yet this is where most people use it.

Waste of Time?

Now I don’t think there are any harmful or detrimental effects from stretching before a run or a gym session apart from wasting some time. So if you want to stretch go ahead, just don’t be fooled into thinking it is sufficient to prepare you for your sports or activities.

The negative effects of stretching that are sometimes mentioned such as reduced power and speed as shown in some research realistically will not be noticed by most of us and is only of importance to elite athletes at the top of their game.

Also, those who do stretch routinely before a sport or activity, there may be positive psychological benefits of going through a familiar routine and the rituals and expectations this can produce.

So the only time I would recommend someone stops stretching is if they are doing it at the expense of something else that I feel would be more beneficial, or if it was becoming an adverse maladaptive or compulsive behaviour, a bit like those who continuously scratch to try and stop an itch.

I also usually recommend people stop stretching with certain tendinopathies in the early painful stages such as cross-leg stretches in those with glute med tendinopathy, and calf heel drops for those with insertional Achilles tendons.

The reasoning behind this is to reduce the compression forces on the tendon whilst it’s painful and pathological (ref). However, after listening to Dr Pete Malliaras recently I may rethink this advice, as Pete thinks the forces and the time spent by most when they stretch is too small to cause any detrimental or negative effects.

Sisters of Science

There are also a lot of other misunderstandings around the effects of stretching, such as thinking it changes the length and shape of muscles, with many advocates telling females stretching will give them long, lean, sexy looking muscles.

This ‘sister-science’ which is a close relation to the more common ‘bro-science’ is often perpetuated in activities like yoga and pilates classes misleading millions of women to waste hours and hours stretching in the vain hope it will make them lean and slender when actually stretching makes very little difference to the aesthetic appearance of their bodies.

longandlean-magazines-and-products-450x287
Although stretching isn’t a passive activity and forms part of the continuum of exercise and indeed loading, the forces produced during stretching are often just too low to create any significant adaptive changes. Many studies do show improvements in range of movement after stretching interventions (ref), but very rarely do they show any change to the structure of the tissues, unless you do it really really hard, for really really long times (ref). Simply put most stretching routines will have little to no effect on the physiological structure of our bodies.

Use the Force

It appears that most stretching improves our flexibility not by lengthening our muscles but by increasing our tolerance to the stretch sensation by habituating us to the protective stretch reflex (ref). So if you want to alter a muscles shape or length stretching won’t do it, instead, we need to increase the force the muscles are exposed to.

The easiest way to increase forces into a muscle or any other soft tissue is with an external load, such as with strength or resistance training, however many do not associate strength training with increases in flexibility. In fact many think resistance training does the opposite, creating big bulky stiff muscles.

But if an external load is applied steadily, slowly, and consistently through a joint and muscles available range of motion, then its flexibility can be improved, this is what I call Strength Stretching.

Strength stretching improves flexibility in a number of ways, one being habituation to the stretch reflex just like stretching does, but also via a process called sarcomerogenesis (ref), which is a fancy way of saying lengthening muscles.

Heavy slow forces into skeletal muscle, especially eccentric forces, seem to signal sarcomerogenesis via a complex process that I don’t fully understand (ref). All I know and care about is if I apply heavy slow eccentric forces to a muscle it adapts via this process, strengthening and lengthening the muscle… that what I call a win-win!

Also, a very recent systematic review of 11 trials that compared the improvements in flexibility between stretching and strengthening exercises has shown that strengthening is just as effective as stretching for improving flexibility (ref).

Heavy and Slow

So for most people I see these days who tell me they feel stiff or tight, I now rarely recommend stretching, instead preferring to give them some ‘strength stretching’. This sounds simple, but in reality, it can be hard to convince many.

The beliefs that when you are stiff stretching is needed and strengthening will only worsen it are rife and pervasive. But, when I can convince them to try most never go back to stretching again.

I often ask them to use a heavy load that scares them a little to use, but that they feel in control of, asking them to take it slowly through the range or position that they feel tight or restricted in. How long and how many reps I ask them to do is dependant on their pain and fatigue levels, but usually, it around 10 seconds per rep and anywhere from 5-8 reps, with 2-3 sets done per session, and usually done every other day.

They are warned that they will have some perfectly normal post ‘strength stretching’ soreness which is due to the heavy slow eccentric forces causing microscopic muscle damage with then signals the normal muscle repair and adaptive sarcomereogenesis processes.

Summary

So for me, I find ‘strength stretching’ a far more effective and efficient way to maintain or restore range of movement or reduce sensations of stiffness than static stretching. And although I’m no advocate of stretching I am an advocate of movement, so rarely will you hear me recommend that someone stops stretching, especially if they enjoy doing it. However, my argument is if you’re going to stretch, why not get stronger whilst you’re doing it.

As always thanks for reading

Adam

RehabStrength Stretching!

OTHER BLOGS

ARCHIVES

Related news

  1. Adam,
    Thank you for another well-written article!
    However, all the references linking to PubMed results in an error message for me. Problem with the links or does PubMed just hate Sweden?
    Best regards
    Staffan

  2. How much load I use is dependant on the person and of course their pain levels, but usually, it is heavy enough so that they cant do the concentric phase of the movement.
    Adam, I am probably interpreting it wrong, but this sounds extremely heavy if one is not able to do a concentric. Sounds like a really heavy squat without getting up. Could you elaborate? Thanks for the great article!

    • Hi Arnoud… you are NOT interpreting it wrong… I do like to try and get them to use a weight they can not lift concentrically but this doesnt automatically mean it has to be heavy. The weight/load depends on pain levels, the area worked, and of course the individuals capacity. For example the 65 year old​ female with sub acromial shoulder pain who cant get into end range internal rotation, the weight could be as light as 1-2kg, but for the 25 year old male with slightly tight hamstrings it maybe 75-100kg, hope this makes sense. Cheers Adam

  3. Great article, I’m a huge fan of your work. In Pilates’ defence, we don’t really do static stretching; really only the ‘strength stretching’ that you advocate in the article (on the big apparatus like the reformer and trapeze table). That’s probably where the ‘long and lean’ bollix you refer to comes from…

  4. Good article. The reason why I think a lot of people like static stretching is not because they are deluded into thinking that it increases muscle length/sarcomeres (because the general public don’t care about that stuff), but because for some people it can reduce muscle ‘tension’ when used after exercise. Tension being a combination of muscle tone and local nerve sensitivity and these things cannot easily be measured, so this is just my own theory. If I stretch after exercise I don’t get delayed onset muscle soreness or back pain and if I don’t stretch, I do.
    We don’t fully understand why stretching works well for some people, but if it helps, who cares?

  5. Great post, using progressive loaded stretching more and more in my training routines and with patients, used alot by gymnastics ect and ido portal he’s running a course on it in London this year could be really interesting

  6. Woooow really perfect.
    For the section of ” heavy” can you explain it for example calf tightness?

  7. Thanks for every one of your blogs and articles you have posted Adam. Otherwise I just dont know what sort of nonsense I’d be spouting off to people!

  8. Nice article Adam. I have said a similar thing before. All forms of training – strength training, weight training, body weight training, cardio, core stability, stretching – they are all essentially the same thing: movement of your body parts! The only thing that ever changes is the amount and type of load (volume and intensity), the training modality used (supersets, pyramids, HIIT, static holds etc) and the reason behind doing it. In this light, even stretching and light cardio can be thought of as resistance training since we are ALWAYS overcoming resistance from gravity, momentum, ground reaction forces, even friction and air resistance!
    It does irritate me when people blindly believe lifting weights will make them big, bulky, slow and immobile, just because the majority of bodybuilders train this way and end up this way; this is due to them absolutely maximizing their size and almost totally neglecting to work on their power, speed, agility and coordination. But . . . this is their goal and their life. Anyway, I’m rambling as usual. Good post.