Why You’re Stretching Too Much Stretching is one of those things that many of us feel we should be doing regularly, kind of like flossing our teeth or eating our vegetables. In fact, lots of folks actually feel guilty for not stretching more often, even if they’re not really sure why they’re supposed to be doing it. “I know I should be stretching more,” patients often say to me. To which I always respond, “Why do you think so?” Let’s take a look at stretching and settle this question once and for all. First of all, the kind of stretching we’re talking about is known as “static stretching”. It is a “stretch-and-hold” kind of stretch that involves you bending a joint until you feel tension, then maintaining that tension for some length of time. Chances are, most of the stretching you’ve done in your life falls into the static stretch category. You’ve probably seen NFL teams doing static stretches on the field before they play, or runners doing the “hurdler’s stretch” you see here. But, is stretching useful? And if so, for what — preventing injury, or improving performance? Plus, how often should I do it, and how can I tell what parts need to be stretched? Luckily, loads of research has been done on static stretching, and even more luckily, it all arrives at the same conclusion, which gives us a very clear answer. Here it is: 1. Stretching before exercise does NOT prevent injury, and, 2. Stretching before exercise actually makes you slower. And, none of this is news. Research has been consistently coming back with these results for well over a decade now. In 2001 the National Institute of Health did a study. In 2008 the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research did a study. And in 2010 USA Track & Field did its own study, all of which came up with the same findings: static stretching doesn’t help prevent injuries at all, and not only that, it might actually make you a worse athlete. And yet, static stretches remain a part of practically every major “warm-up” program you’ll see. Apparently, old habits die hard. And not only that, stretching too much can actually put you at greater risk for injury by reducing the natural stability of the joints you’re stretching. Here’s how. When you stretch you’re actually lengthening the tendons, ligaments and muscles that surround the joint you’re stretching. By stretching regularly it’s possible to “loosen” the elasticity of these tissues so much that they allow much more flexibility than you had before.
The only problem is that your joints need a certain amount of tension in order to keep them from coming apart or dislocating. If you over-stretch your muscles and ligaments it’s possible to make the joint so “sloppy” that it becomes unstable and prone to injury. Each joint, whether a knee, neck or shoulder joint, falls along a continuum between flexibility and stability. If you were 100% stable, you’d be completely rigid. If you were 100% flexible, you’d be a pile on the floor. Ideally you’ll fall somewhere in the middle, with enough stability to keep your joint from coming apart, and enough mobility to allow you to do everything you’d like to do. Any time you slide too far to one side of that continuum, you “pay for it” by sacrificing something from the other side. For example, stretching too often or too aggressively may increase your range of motion, but it sacrifices the “built-in” stiffness of the joint that helps protect it. So, if you’re stretching before exercise, or if you feel like you should be stretching regularly in order to stay healthy and fit, STOP! You might actually be setting yourself up for an injury. In general, however, light stretching after exercise is completely harmless and may help you relieve a little workout soreness, so feel free to do it. The key is moderation — both in frequency, duration and intensity of your stretches. In the clinical setting we actually use static stretching as a very effective treatment tool to help restore movement to joints that are restricted, and we’ll discuss how you can check your own flexibility to see if you have any limitations in a future article. Until then, unless you have restricted joint range of motion, don’t worry too much about stretching. And if you suspect you might be truly inflexible, come see us or another qualified health professional. We can assess you on the spot and give you the right prescription of stretches for your unique limitations. But otherwise, don’t feel guilty for not stretching! Dr. Daniel P. Bockmann offer Austin chiropractic services for over 10 years now in the central Texas region. Feel free to visit his website at AustinSpineandSport.com if you happen to live in the Austin area to review and read about his practice.