Why Stretching Doesn't Work
By Linsay Way, DC
Like most chiropractors, a good part of my day is spent working with sedentary office workers who spend eight to 12 hours a day glued to a desk chair in front of a computer. Unsurprisingly, most of these patients arrive at my office with the mobility of a clam, which makes starting any kind of exercise or rehabilitation program a challenge.
But static stretching isn't the solution. In fact, there's little benefit, if any, to be gained from it. Most of us were taught from an early age on that stretching makes you "stretchier." We were told that holding a pose, such as touching your toes, for 20-30 seconds created additional length within a muscle, allowing for greater range of motion.
Unfortunately, while it sounds good in theory, it's 100 percent wrong. No matter how long your patients spend stretching, they'll typically only see negligible improvements in their flexibility and range of motion. What's more, static stretching has actually been shown to decrease strength and athletic performance, while failing to reduce risk of injury to any significant degree.
What the Latest Research Suggests
Two recent reports sum up the latest evidence that static stretching is counterproductive. One, from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that weightlifters who warmed up using static stretching reduced their one-rep maximum strength by 8 percent and decreased their lower body stability by more than 22 percent. Strength decreased even more if the stretch was held for more than 90 seconds.
The findings complement a comprehensive review of 104 experiments published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports that came to the same conclusion.
The real problem here is that people are failing to ask why their muscles are so tight that they need stretching in the first place. Muscles are "dumb"; they do only what they are told to do. I'm constantly pounding it into my patients' heads that the nervous system controls everything and muscles don't contract unless the nervous system says so. If a muscle is chronically tight, there's a reason – for example, the body trying to provide stability to an unstable joint.
Therefore, simply stretching tight muscle tissue without correcting the reason it's tight will only result in that muscle getting tight again.
If Stretching Isn't the Answer, What Is?
Chiropractic care: The first step is, obviously, correcting the cause of the problem with chiropractic care. It's easy to get wrapped up in addressing symptoms, but until the reason for the abnormal muscle tightness is taken care of, you're just going to be spinning wheels.
Foam rolling / traction: Many people think of foam rolling as just another type of stretching, but it's actually quite different. Instead of changing the length of muscle tissues, foam rolling creates a neural down-regulation that reduces resting muscle tone. Additionally, employing traction with decompression tables and/or elastic bands can also decrease stimuli to overactive muscles and encourage movement of fluid into joint spaces.
Dynamic warm-ups: To prep for exercise or rehab work, I advise my patients to warm up by doing the movements they will use during their workout, instead of simply stretching. Of course, everyone's needs and capabilities are different, so the warm-up should be tailored to the individual. For runners or joggers, for example, this means lunges, high knees and power skips.
Dr. Linsay Way, a 2010 graduate of Palmer College of Chiropractic, practices at Wellness Way Chiropractic in Milwaukee, Wisc. (www.wellnesswaychiro.com). Recognized for her work training and treating Milwaukee-area gymnasts, she practices using a combination of low-force adjusting techniques with specific exercises, stretches, nutritional counseling, active release, trigger-point therapy and therapeutic taping.