Is It True That I Should Stop Stretching?
I’ve received countless questions and comments from all of you since a recent New York Times article on “Reasons Not To Stretch” made a splash. The research in this piece is solid, and the conclusion seems quite clear: Static stretching before a workout may do more harm than good. In fact, quite a few studies in recent years support this argument, and it makes sense: Stretched muscles are relaxed muscles, and relaxed muscles are less capable when it comes to explosive muscular performance.
This might seem like good news to all of you stretch-haters. You’ve spent a lifetime with tight hamstrings and stiff hips, unable to touch your toes, and now you’ve finally got a good excuse to skip the stretches altogether! Not so fast. Before you throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s take a closer look at the value of flexibility and the role it plays in your workout, and in your life:
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman
When my daughters were younger, I joined them for quite a few field trips to the California Science Center in downtown LA. One of their signature exhibits is Tess, a 50-foot-tall woman with visible organs that light up to illustrate – among other things – homeostasis, the process by which our organs work together to achieve equilibrium in our bodies.
Tess also serves as a reminder as to why our bodies require a warm-up before exercise. When we wake up in the morning and haven’t moved yet, our core temperature levels are down – and in order to prevent skeletal muscle injuries, we’ve got to gradually bring those core temperatures back up. Stretching a cold muscle, after all, can do more harm than good. That’s why we’ve got to increase bloodflow to our muscles and our hearts, and we’ve got to break down oxyhemoglobin – a chemical complex of oxygen and hemoglobin that, when it’s degraded and broken down through a proper warm-up, delivers oxygen to our muscles more efficiently.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
The type of stretching that’s getting bad press is static, which is what generally comes to mind when we think about stretching: holding a stretch in one still, static position for 15 to 30 seconds. But there’s another overlooked (and often misunderstood) option called “Dynamic Stretching.” This refers to movement that takes your body through a full range of motion. Think old-school calisthenics: Arm circles, lunges, high-knees, and even jumping jacks. These gentle but dynamic movements increase bloodflow and prepare your body for action while also improving flexibility.
So, for example, before going for a run, perhaps you used to do a static hamstring stretch, where you’d rest your right foot on a ledge in front of you, lean into it, and hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Instead, try a series of lunges using only your body weight, being sure to incorporate a full range of motion by lunging forward, back, and out to both sides.
But static stretching still plays a valuable role. It’s still one of the best ways to improve flexibility, range of motion, and even heal from certain types of injuries – the trick may just be in the timing. So instead of doing a static stretching routine just before a tough aerobic or strength training workout, do it as your cooldown, or as a pre-bedtime ritual. And don’t hesitate to start small: Hold a pose for a few seconds, release, then try it again using a further range of motion. Try this 3 or 4 times before you try holding it for a longer static stretch.
Remember, whether you’re a weekend warrior or an elite athlete, a working mom with stiff joints or a 50-foot woman, a little stretching goes a long way.