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The Controversy of Stretching: Harm or Help?

Updated: Apr 19

I first wanted to title this post “Why Stretching Doesn’t Work” but I thought there’d be a mob with digital pitchforks. Bear with me a minute. 

If you’re an active person whether it be running, yoga, Pilates, strength training, golf, tennis, or *gasp* pickleball, no doubt you’ve experienced soreness, tightness or even injury. 

As a massage therapist, I immediately tense a little when I hear people say they’re going to stretch. And it’s not because stretching is inherently bad. It’s just that stretching, at least passive stretching, can sometimes make things worse. 

An example I often give clients is this:

Think of rope with a knot in the middle.

What happens to that knot when you pull it at the ends?

In this case the rope is your muscle, and when you stretch an already contracted, “knotted” muscle, it further irritates and tightens the muscle. 

But you feel better after stretching?

Yes, but not for the reason you think. When you start stretching it’s sometimes uncomfortable and even painful. But as you do it over and over, consistently, it can become one of those “hurts so good” sensations that makes you feel it’s effective and so you keep doing it because you like the sensation. Inevitably, the feeling wears off after a couple of hours and the tightness in your muscles comes back.

Remember that pain does not equate gain and it’s not a marker of effectiveness. 

What happens when you stretch?

When you stretch in a slow, controlled manner you don’t activate the stretch reflex, and are able to extend further than you normally would. But most of us are tight for time, right? Stretches are rushed and the stretch reflex which keeps you from pulling your muscles too far to prevent injury is activated. It’s that hitch feeling you feel when you go into a stretch too fast that sometimes feels painful. If you stretch for a prolonged period of time (think 90 second breathe-through yoga poses), the stretch reflex becomes less active and so you feel looser for a few hours before your muscles revert back to their normal state.

In 2008, a review of 364 studies concluded that static stretching does not reduce overall injury rates.

“Seven out of 364 studies met the inclusion/exclusion criteria.

All four RCTs concluded that static stretching was ineffective in reducing the

incidence of exercise-related injury, and only one of the three CCTs

concluded that static stretching did reduce the

incidence of exercise-related injury.”

Other arguments for not stretching include: 

  1. Harvard Health’s Caution:

  1. The Five Percent Strength Drop:

But is stretching always bad? 

No. like with most things; it is nuanced and there is a time and a place for it. An example would be therapeutic stretching for some injuries with muscle scarring. Dynamic stretching, which mimics some of the motions you will be doing your activities, is also a good warm up. 

And, of course, supervised stretching with or as prescribed by your physical therapist. 

Where does massage come in?

Let’s take it back to the rope example. Massage and other types of manual and mechanotherapies, such as foam rolling, help “loosen” the knot, if you will. Massage, especially that of a consistent applied force, does this by flushing out neutrophils and cytokines that cause inflammation and pain in the muscles. The Harvard School of Engineering and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering proved treated muscle fibers were not only improved faster but were also stronger.

Those that have ever gotten a massage from me know what I suggest: I would prioritize massage, and consistent self-massage for best results. And maybe go to yoga after or do some light stretching after.

If you are experiencing pain, soreness, or just want to maintain your active lifestyle, book an appointment with me anytime: BOOK YOUR MASSAGE To read more about how I became a massage therapist and why I specialized in low back, hip and knee pain READ THIS

Citations: The Science Behind the Debate

  1.  National Library of Medicine:  

  1. Mayo Clinic:

  1. Dr. Phil Maffetone:

  1. Verywell Fit:

  1. Harvard School of Engineering:

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