Why Stretching is Important: Stretching for Flexibility, Injury Prevention, Sports Performance
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Many people neglect stretching regularly, especially in New York City where busy schedules leave little room for something that is often seen as unnecessary. Whether you work out every day or only get exercise from walking through NYC streets, stretching is important to prevent muscle injury. If you are afflicted with muscle injury or pain, stretching can also be used as a tool to relieve pain in addition to the physical therapy and medical massage techniques that are recommended.
Stretch much? The usual answer to that question among clients and friends is, “Not as much as I should”. Well to be fair, that’s the same type of answer I usually get regarding exercise (“not as much as I should”) and nutrition (“not as well as I could”). Sound familiar?
People always ask me for info and guidelines on why, when, how, which muscles and how often they should stretch. And to be honest, there’s no single and universal answer to that question. There are so many factors that should go into designing and implementing a smart stretching regiment for yourself that giving a simple answer may not quite cut it.
That’s because there are a multitude of reasons to stretch and there are several types of stretching, so including the proper stretching protocols for yourself partly comes down to your goals and partlv comes down to your biomechanic needs. As with exercise, any time you perform a stretch, ask yourself, "why am I doing this"? What purpose does it serve? Is this actually going to help me in some way or am I doing it just because I think I should be? And might it actually work against me in some way?
I find that people, admittedly in the past myself included at times, don't put enough thought into their stretching routines in order to get the well-established benefits that stretching offers. With that said, let's first take a look at why stretching matters at all.
Why You Should Stretch
Simply stated, stretching is a collection of techniques aimed at lengthening, or elongating, muscles and connective tissue. At its core, there are 4 primary reasons why stretching is important:
To increase range of motion in muscles and joints
To reduce the risk of injury
To enhance sports performance
To alleviate pain and manage stress
While there is an overlap and a direct relationship between these four categories, they can be understood distinctly and it is worth breaking them down in order to better understand how stretching works and why it is important.
Increase Range of Motion: Range of motion refers to the available amount of movement available at a joint. Not having enough range of motion at a joint, whether it is from reduced muscle length or from structural and functional mobility limitations in the joint itself, can lead to injury, pain and the nagging feeling that often comes with constant tight muscles. There has been a lot of research conducted over the past several decades to evaluate whether stretching actually increases joint range of motion and the evidence, while still somewhat complex, indicates that it does.
It is important to note that while muscle length and thus stretching should often be a key component of any attempts to improve joint range of motion, stretching is not always the only solution because other factors affect range of motion, including joint mobility. If there is not proper mobility within a joint, perhaps from arthritis, cartilage damage, impingement, labrum tears or excessive scar tissue, then it may not matter how much you stretch a muscle. It can be like trying to pull a carpet out from underneath furniture. The rug won't go anywhere without possibly tearing or damaging the furniture.
In addition, and we will touch on this later, it is usually not necessary to stretch a muscle that is not short, meaning they cross joints have normal range of motion. It might feel "tight" but tightness doesn't always mean shortness. I treat many dancers who think they need to stretch every muscle in their body because they feel tight and because stretching feels good. But in reality, often times their problems stem from the fact that they are hyper-flexible and/or hyper-mobile. Stretching an already over-lengthened muscle and bringing an already hyper-mobile joint past normal end rage of motion can just contribute to weakness in that muscle and laxity/instability in the joints that it attaches to.
One example is the middle and upper back. If you sit all day and hunch over, the upper back muscles - the erector spinae of the thoracic spine, the rhomboid, middle traps and lower traps - will be under constant tension but NOT from being short, rather from being in a lengthened but tensioned position. That's why you might often feel the need to stretch your middle and upper back.
But the problem is that those muscles are working over time because they are constantly being pulled in a stretched position. So, you don't need to stretch them further. That would just contribute to the problem. To the contrary, you need to stretch the chest muscles while also activating and strengthening the upper back muscles. Without creating more flexibility in the anterior chest muscles and thoracic extension mobility, the results will not be significant or lasting.
Another example is the the hamstring muscle. While there are many people with very short hamstring muscles, I cannot tell you how many people regularly stretch hamstring muscles that do not need to be stretched. To that point, runners and other athletes who experience hamstring strains should be wary of stretching them, both when there is an acute strain and even when there isn't. Often times with hamstring strains, the underlying factors that need to be address might include shortness in calf, hip flexor and low back musculature, weakness in certain Glute muscles and limited hip rotation as well as other factors. Figuring out what might be causing your own hamstring issues is key and may require some help from an experienced injury recovery specialist.
Active and Passive Influences: Muscle tightness and stiff joints can be the result of active muscles being forcefully contracted during sports which can lead to overactivity and spasticity of those muscles. Or muscle tightness can occur passively due to poor posture such as sitting for long periods with the hips in deep flexion and the head in a forward head position. Whether it is an active or passive dynamic at play, or some combination of the two, having limited joint range of motion and muscle elasticity can lead to muscle imbalance and increase the risk of both acute and chronic injuries.
Reduce the Risk of Injuries
When there is insufficient or below average range of motion, muscles and joints cannot perform optimally and the risk of injury may increase. This is in part because the relationship between muscle length and muscle tension (length-tension relationship) gets distorted, making it harder for a muscle to produce the appropriate amount of force at and in the proper angle and direction. When this happens, muscles are vulnerable to injury from altered motor unit recruitment and joint kinematics.
This altered length-tension relationship within and between muscles in essence makes it harder for muscles to contract and lengthen properly which can lead to what is known as the cumulative injury cycle; tissue damage to muscle cells, an inflammatory response, muscle adhesions and perhaps scar tissue formation which may lead to altered joint mechanics which then reinforces the process over time with repetitive movements or poor posture.
So by increasing joint range of motion and reducing stiffness, stretching can reduce the risk of injury in athletes, exercise enthusiasts and more sedentary individuals as well by normalizing length-tension relationships, force production (known as force coupling) and joint alignment.
Stretching has been documented to reduce the risk of injury for athletes in a range of sports when done properly and at the right time. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, "decreasing muscle stiffness through stretching will decrease the work required to perform a particular activity and potentially increase overall performance".
Enhance Sports Performance
By reducing stiffness and increasing range of motion, stretching can help create optimal length-tension relationships (as discussed above) and efficient force production. Doing so can help an athlete optimally perform the movements required by their sport, such as pitching, jumping and running. If a pitcher or basketball player is inflexible and stiff to the point where he or she cannot generate accurate and great enough force and movement, not only does injury risk go up but the quality of movement, precision and thus performance can go down.
If, for example, Jacob deGrom or Clayton Kershaw can't fully extend their shoulders and elbow back as they gear up to accelerate and release the ball, chances are they won't be able to generate the velocity and location that make them so dominant.
Reduce Pain and Manage Stress
Constant tension in muscles can be uncomfortable. It's no wonder why sitting all day can cause tightness and pain in the low back and neck, for example, in large part because the tension generated by bone position and muscles that are either overstretched or chronically short sends signals through the nervous system that activate pain and other neuron receptors.