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Static stretching used to be a small part of everyone's workout. Then, we were all warned that not stretching meant torn muscles, damaged joints and sprung tendons. Later still we 'learned' that static stretching's no good. So what's the truth?

Stretching is surrounded by hype, mythology and misconception. In this article, we'll take the major claims for and against static stretching and see if the evidence supports them. Then we'll look at some more effective strategies.

First, what is static stretching?

Static stretching is when you get into a stretch and hold it without moving for time. What most people mean by static stretching is passive stretching - you use your weight or some tension in another part of your body to move you into the stretch and the body part you're stretching is completely relaxed. Everything from the figure-4 stretch to the hand-behind-the-head triceps stretch, all the way out to the splits, counts as static/passive stretching. There's such a thing as active static stretching, but we'll touch on that later.

So what are the claims made about static stretching?

1: Stretching prevents injury

The idea:

Making your muscles longer makes you less likely to hurt them when you exercise. They won't bump up against their maximum range of motion if they're longer, so you should stretch before you exercise.

The facts:

The facts don't really bear this out. Long term stretching might make you more flexible - but probably not, as we'll see. However, says Judie Gilchrist at the CDC, 'most injuries take place within the normal range of motion.'

Since static stretching can reduce neural drive to muscles and reduce their ability to resist or exert force, it doesn't look like stretching has much of a place in injury prevention.

Studies that appear to show stretching reducing the risk of injury are often made meaningless by including a dynamic warm-up along with stretching, making it impossible to distinguish their effects.  Dr Gilchrist agrees: 'Stretching and warming up have just gone together for decades. It's simply what's done, and it hasn't been approached through rigorous science.' 

2: Stretching causes injuries

The idea:

Stretching passively reduces neural drive to the muscles you stretch - yo neurologically 'turn them off' when you stretch. Therefore, you're increasing your chances of winding up with an injury!

The facts:

Stretching for injury prevention has been studied and studied. The results are quite mixed, and they don't show much effect either way. Stretching isn't very effective at preventing injury, but doesn't seem to cause injuries either. In fact, disconcertingly, it doesn't seem to do much of anything for your risk of injury either way.

3: Stretching prevents muscle soreness/DOMS

The idea:

Stretching loosens tight muscles which would otherwise restrict the flow of blood and lymph, making muscles stay filled with metabolic waste products, which makes them sore.

The facts:

Stretching has a poor record at preventing DOMS. Lund et al found that 'passive stretching after eccentric exercise cannot prevent secondary pathological alterations.' 

The effects in preventing muscle soreness people report when they use stretching to deal with DOMS are probably psychological.

4: Stretching increases flexibility by lengthening your muscles

The idea: 

Stretching makes you more flexible by forcing your muscles to get longer, allowing for a greater range of motion

The facts:

According to a study by Weppler and Magnusson, stretching doesn't have much to do with lengthening muscles. It has more to do with making people feel safer in more extreme ranges of motion than with any physical changes. Muscles do get longer when they're stretched, the study found, but 'this length increase is transient,' and over stretching programs of 3-8 weeks, the changes in flexibility that took places were due to sensory changes: people got used to being more flexible. Their muscles didn't get any longer. The study did add that the effect of programs longer than 8 weeks 'have yet to be evaluated.'

So stretching doesn't really do much. What should You do to prevent injury, prevent DOMS, and get more range of motion?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Shrier I., Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10593217
  • Lund et al., The effect of passive stretching on delayed onset muscle soreness, and other detrimental effects following eccentric exercise. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9764443
  • Weppler and Magnusson, Increasing Muscle Extensibility: A Matter of Increasing Length or Modifying Sensation? http://ptjournal.apta.org/content/90/3/438.long
  • Ingrahams, Paul, Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, http://saveyourself.ca/articles/delayed-onset-muscle-soreness.php

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