by Mike Klobucher
Walk into a gym and you’re bound to see a lot of stretching going on. I think most of us seem to believe it is important or “good to do.” In fact, a lot of people tell me they “should stretch” even if they admit to not doing it regularly. So, it is assumed then that there are some benefits to stretching with the obvious one cited being increased range of motion or movement ability. But does that actually happen – does stretching work? The simple answer: it can. Baking a cake can turn out…if you have the right ingredients, just like stretching can yield results with the right ingredients. Here’s the recipe:
Load or Overload – The loading of the tissues being stretched needs to be greater than those we experience in normal daily activities and probably to the point of slight discomfort (not pain). Overloading does not mean torturing yourself but should be a gradual or graded progression and could include increasing the force, range, speed, and/or duration of the stretching exercise/activity.
Repetition – How much and how often should we stretch to make a real, permanent change? No one knows for sure, but probably a lot. Particularly if you are not limited by pain, then the longer and more frequently you stretch, the more effective it will be. Lasting improvements in range of motion take weeks or months of dedicated work, so the more you can incorporate range of motion challenges into your daily life, the better.
Specificity – In simple terms we get better at what we practice, so practice/stretch specifically for the movements you want to improve. The more similar the exercise to the task, the more likely it will transfer to improvements in the goal task. Studies have shown that while long-term stretching has been shown to improve range of motion, those gains are not observed during functional tasks (i.e. walking) if not practiced.
Active Movement – It seems like an obvious statement but in order to get better at moving you have to in fact move. Passive, sustained stretching can indeed have a place in restoring mobility particularly when there are barriers to active movement such as pain or post-surgical restrictions. However, in order for your stretching to ultimately transfer into improved performance or movement ability there needs to be an active component.
Goal-Oriented Movement – Stretching individual muscles or tissues is not very plausible and more likely impossible at least partially due to the vast array of intertwined connective tissues that bind us together. In addition, the body doesn’t function in that manner normally. We move to accomplish tasks or goals, and because this is the way our body creates and controls movement, it makes logical sense to train our range of motion with goal-oriented movement that resembles the tasks we are trying to improve (i.e. squatting, running, etc.). Back in 1889 neurologist Hughlings Jackson reminded, “the brain knows nothing of muscles, it knows only movement.” We would be wise not to forget that as we try to improve our movement ability with stretching.
So in summary, yes stretching can and does work as long as you are patient enough to continue loading the tissues over and over again for a long time actively in a manner that is similar to the movement you are trying to improve.