Static stretching, while popular, should not be your go-to solution to resolve feelings of tightness. In fact, it oftentimes should be one of the last tools in the toolbox your athletes reach for. Here’s why stretching should be used sparingly, and what your athletes should do instead.
Is static stretching really helping your athletes?
There are two main reasons why we stretch. The first is based on a habitual pattern—we’ve been stretching for decades at this point (since the mid-to-late 1980s) and as creatures of habit, it feels right to continue doing so (regardless of what recent science says). The second is because it feels good. Many athletes enjoy the feeling stretching gives them of “opening a tight muscle,” yet really they’ve just alleviated some of the neural tension which will return again 20-40 minutes later.
Although stretching is easy and gives us that “good job!” feeling, it’s clear that it doesn’t do much for our bodies in terms of serious improvement. Taking the time and addressing the root of the problem which is causing the muscle tightness is not an easy task, but it’s the right task to take on. Let’s take a look at common reasons to stretch, and then cover the things your athletes can do that will offer far better results.
Problem #1: Addressing Lower Back Pain
Many athletes believe they need to stretch their hamstrings to relieve their persistent lower back pain. There is very little evidence to suggest that this is a valid solution. However, there is plenty of research showing that a loss of range of motion at the hip, along with loss of stability at the hip are significant factors leading to the development of lower back pain (McGill et al., 2003).
This is due to the body losing the range of motion at the hip, and looking to get it somewhere else close-by—usually the spine. Instead of stretching their hamstrings, athletes should look to master the “Big 3 Exercises” as per leading back and spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill.
- The Mcgill Crunch (watch the video for full cues.)
- Side Planks (not how you’ve been doing them!)
- The Bird-Dog (again, not how you’ve been doing them).
While not a magic pill, the “Big 3” exercises can help bolster the midsection. When combined with hip exercises such as the Half Clamshell and Standing hip CAR exercise, your athletes will find themselves moving and feeling better.
Additionally, athletes should perform some hip strength building exercises that address the other glutes, the Gluteus Medius and Gluteus Minimus. These help in abduction and stabilizing the ball and socket joint as they move. Try the Single Leg Deadlift Reach and Side Lying Straight leg lift to tap into your hip power.
Problem #2: Activating Non-Dominant Muscles
The muscles in the body will adapt to our strength and weaknesses, shortening muscles not being used through their full range, in an effort to decrease the amount of work needed to be done. Take your chest for example, after being on the bike for a few hours. Reaching up for that coffee mug out of the cabinet is just a bit harder, in fact, reaching overhead at all isn’t very fun.
This happens because when you ride, those muscles are in a fixed position with little activation. Believe it or not, this has detrimental effects on the joints’ ability to work as they’re designed to. When muscles shut down/lose strength through range of motion, it forces a cascade of other negative adaptations in the body, which greatly changes our biomechanics.
Instead of stretching, look to build a strength training program that allows you to address tight muscles and imbalances through small doses of corrective exercises. This may include the Standing ¼ Squat Balance C’s, and other dynamic exercises that help you move through the range of motion such as the Side Lying Windmill.
Athletes not fans of strength training? No problem! Putting together a focused dynamic warm-up or cooldown for before or after the bike, run, or swim can be a great way to address the problem areas and help them move better.
So, does stretching ever help?
So, the last thing I’d like to address are the cases in which stretching does serve a helpful physiological purpose. These include:
- Times when your physical therapist or doctor has instructed you to perform static stretching as a part of a treatment plan.
- Very special circumstances as a part of a strength program to help the individual be able to “access” and fire a muscle at the same or an adjacent joint, for an isometric hold due to the “tight” muscle causing it to misfire or not work.
Beyond that, according to recent scientific studies, the vast majority of physiological grievances can be solved more effectively by targeted strength training.
1.”Neurogenic pain cannot be stretched away.”
The Sensitive Nervous System, By David Butler (2000)
2. “Sadly, too many patients with so-called tight hamstrings or sciatic symptoms pursue stretching programs that produce only temporary relief. This relief results from the activation of the stretch reflex in the back extensor muscles, but it typically lasts only about 20 minutes. The pain and stiffness return.” McGill, Low Back Disorders, p 50
4. Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jun 8. PubMed #21659901 Researchers looked at more than 4500 studies before choosing about 100 to look at more carefully. They found “overwhelming evidence” of “no significant effect,” and that is certainly no surprise for anyone who had been watching stretching science over the years.
6. The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. (Meanwhile, it does provide adequate support for the conclusion that stretching is useless for injury prevention. The overly optimistic conclusions were not enough for good news about that: “consistently favorable estimates were obtained for all injury prevention measures except for stretching.”)