The biggest myths about stretching debunked

Nov 13, 2019
Everyone knows that stretching is important, but people often get confused about why they should. Source: Getty

For some reason, there’s an ongoing debate about whether to stretch or not before exercise. With so many opinions, it must seem hard to know what is right for you.

But in over 20 years’ practice in physiotherapy, my opinion has never wavered – stretching was, is, and will always be, important for your general bodily maintenance, and especially before exercise and sports.

At Elite Akademy, we have encountered many myths around stretching – here are some doozies you may have heard:

Myth: Stretching alone can prevent injury

If only it was that simple. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee stretching can prevent injury. There are too many variables at play: muscles can be weak, joints can be stiff or too loose, nerves can be tight, ligaments can be loose. Any of these alone, or together, can cause injury.

Stretching works wonders for tight muscles but there are plenty of other issues which can go wrong, and stretching won’t necessarily prevent problems in your joints, nerves or ligaments.

If you are stretching yet repeatedly becoming injured, you may need a professional assessment to find exactly where you are breaking down.

Myth: If you’re inflexible then stretching is important

Inflexibility can be caused by many issues, not just tight muscles. Even stress and incorrect diet can cause inflexibility. Stretching is not the only solution, though it is likely to be useful for you. But if you have ongoing issues with flexibility then you may need a professional assessment to evaluate your muscles, joints, nerves and ligaments.

Myth: If you’re already flexible, you’re okay!

Unfortunately, this is not only untrue, but believing this may contribute to future injuries.

If you’re flexible, you still need to prepare your muscles for activity. I would still recommend starting with static stretches (just a basic stretch for about 30 seconds at a time), and then work up to dynamic stretches (more functional stretches where your joints and muscles go through full movements).

Myth: If you don’t stretch your muscles will shorten

Incorrect. Muscles will only shorten if kept in a shortened (closed) position. For example, always having your arm in a bent position will shorten your biceps muscle. But you could go all your life using your arm, without stretching your biceps, and not worry about it shortening.

What are some keys to a good stretching routine?

  • Creating a stretching routine is good – you loosen your body gradually before activity. Note: you shouldn’t feel pain. If you’re feeling pain, you are pushing yourself too much.
  • Beware of pins and needles or numbness when stretching. This is pushing the nerves or biomechanical structures past what they can tolerate. Again, you need to ease off.
  • When you are stretching, hold the stretch for 30 seconds – research says 21 seconds is enough, but 30 seconds is a nice round number and those extra nine seconds won’t hurt.
  • Repeat the stretch on each muscle three times before moving onto another muscle.
  • Opinions vary on whether to stretch your upper or lower body first. It depends on the exercise you are doing. For stretching before or after swimming, which is mainly an upper body workout, it’s always good to stretch the upper body first, and then move to lower limbs. For runners or other exercise which mainly uses the lower body, it’s vice versa – stretch the lower limbs first then move to the upper body. Many people tend to chop and change – upper body first one time, lower body first another – this is not as effective.
  • Stretching the upper back and lower back is important for any exercise – gentle twisting, turning and bending stretches are effective.
  • Static stretching, which is a basic muscle stretch for 30 seconds at a time, is good for everyday maintenance.
  • Dynamic stretches are good before an activity. This is where you may mimic an activity, for example, moving your leg in a pendulum-like fashion. This lets the muscles stretch, creates movement through the joints and increases blood flow to the area.
  • While stretching should be a part of the warm-up, stretching should not be the sole warm up. Research has shown this to be true. Remember to ease into any exercise you are doing.
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