I get a lot of questions from folks asking questions about when and why to stretch. There are many pervasive myths that exist around stretching, but few resources out there helping to dismantle these beliefs and then formulate a framework as to how to apply stretching at the right time. I think if you spend enough time in the literature on stretching and flexibility, the less and less of a fan you will become of static stretching for the goal of increasing usable range of motion. This isn't to say that static stretching doesn't have its place (i personally enjoy relaxed static stretching as a way to wind down at the end of the day or after i've done a hard workout), but i think people can overdo it by stretching too much passively while ignoring more active means of mobility training.
I've provided an infographic below in an attempt to deconstruct the three most common reasons why people feel the need to stretch. When you start to really dig into this stuff, you realize that acquiring more mobility is really just a wonderful by-product of intelligent, progressive training. For example, if you feel tight all the time, it may be that you are simply too stressed and doing too much work than you can recover from (as opposed to thinking you are tight because you have structurally "short" muscles that need to be stretched all the time). In this case, yanking on muscles more will likely not fix the problem. Having an understanding of progressive training principles (SAID principle, Specificity, Progressive Overload, etc) and adaptation can help guide us towards increasing range of motion in a safe and systematic way. I find it interesting that we apply progressive training principles to increasing strength or endurance goals, but we forget that increasing one's mobility is an adaptation, as well. It may be a longer, slower adaptation process, but i would argue that it still adheres to basic principles of adaptation just like strength and endurance training does.
It is my hope that this infographic will provide more of a birds-eye view of mobility training that will steer us away from the old paradigm of "stretch to loosen, strengthen to tighten". I believe we need to start looking at mobility training through more lenses than just tissue biomechanics. We need to bring in other disciplines from strength&conditioning, psychology, pain neuroscience, motor control, and more.
And most importantly, i hope this starts a conversation amongst professionals to keep evolving this concept while putting this stuff into practice. A theory is useless if it can't be applied. Enjoy!
Drew, MK, & Finch, CF. (2016). The Relationship Between Training Load and Injury, Illness
and Soreness: A Systematic and Literature Review. Sports Med. Jun;46(6):861-83.
Magnusson SP, Simonsen EB, Aagaard P, Sørensen H, Kjaer M. A mechanism for altered flexibility in human skeletal muscle .Journal of Physiology. 1996 Nov 15;497 ( Pt 1):291-8.
Moseley GL, Hodges PW. Reduced variability of postural strategy prevents normalization of motor changes induced by back pain: a risk factor for chronic trouble? Behavioral Neuroscience. 2006 Apr;120(2):474-6.
O'Sullivan K, McAuliffe S, Deburca N. The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2012 Sep;46(12):838-45.
About the Author
Charlie Reid considers himself an "anti-guru", an educator, and an enthusiast for all things that make humans stronger and more resilient. His pragmatic approach centers around helping others find solutions that are practical, while sifting through all the hype so prevalent on the internet.