Do You Really Need to Stretch?
At least not for the reasons everyone tells you to stretch.
Stretching has reached almost “god-like” status in the physical fitness realm. It can do anything. Warming Up? Stretch. In pain/injured? Stretch. Mental health problems? Stretch.
Stretching IS the fitness industry cure all. Bring up any sort of issue to your local trainer (whether it be pain, imbalances, weakness) they are likely to prescribe you some stretches along the way.
The thing is the term “stretching” could easily be replaced by the term “physical activity” and you’d still be reaping all of the great benefits listed above. There’s really only one reason stretching would be the preferred choice over basic physical activity. In most other cases, however, there’s no real “need” to be stretching. You could very easily live a long and healthy life without ever stopping for a single stretch session depending on your goals and current physical activity level.
So, with that being said, let’s dive into the question “Do you really need to stretch?”.
1. Why You SHOULD Stretch
Stretching’s sole purpose is to increase your overall ROM (Range of motion). Nothing more.
Stretching is an extremely useful tool for athletes who’s sports require a ROM which would be considered “beyond normal” (Think gymnastics, martial arts, wrestling, weightlifting, dancing, etc.)
All of these activities require movement patterns which exceed what would be expected of an average healthy and physically active individual. So, stretching is a very good idea in these cases.
Additionally, stretching can be used as a rehab tool.
Stretching would be a great addition to the routine of an individual who has limited ROM for activities of daily living (sitting, standing, stooping, reaching, etc.). Likewise, an injury or surgery could have severely impacted someone’s ability to move a joint through it’s normal ROM, and again, stretching would be great for this.
There certainly are plenty of reasons to stretch, but they shouldn’t extend beyond the main goal of “increasing ROM“.
Think of stretching as just another tool in your tool box. It’s purpose? Increasing ROM. This is not a swiss army knife we are working with here.
2. Stretching For Pain Management/Recovery
Stretching is the instant go to for all things pain and injury related. Problem is…it doesn’t really deserve this status.
Stretching is not an effective preventative measure against injuries.
You are not “bulletproofing” yourself with that nightly stretching routine, you’re just increasing how stretchy you are (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Likewise, a stretching routine isn’t going to increase your recovery between sessions or even reduce muscle soreness from a workout session (despite how good you may feel post stretching session).
There is no current evidence to suggest stretching as an effective injury prevention tool or recovery tool. If you intend to add it to your routine you should be adding it from a standpoint of “I want to increase my ROM” not “I want to increase my recovery“.
The only reason stretching would be useful as a pain management/recovery tool would be that it’s forcing you to move and provide blood flow to an afflicted area (which does promote injury recovery). However, basic physical activity and movement also achieves this.
I believe stretching holds such a high place in injury management and recovery due to that “post stretch feeling” more so than any solid evidence actually supporting it. Everyone loves the feeling immediately after a good stretching session and I’m right there with you. However, these effects are not long lasting and to date we have no reason to believe they are impacting our injury risk or recovery despite how good it may feel.
4. Stretching as a Warm-Up
So we just mentioned that stretching isn’t a preventative measure for injury.
You’re also probably yelling at me from behind your computer screen because every gym and health teacher since you were nine has told you you need to stretch before you exercise or you’ll get hurt. Have you been lied to? Or am I currently lying to you?
The whole “stretch before you exercise” statement is half true. The problem here is the term “stretching” often get’s interplaced with the term “warming up” when it shouldn’t be.
Warming up WILL reduce your injury risk, and is a preventative measure for injury. However, stretching does not need to be apart of a safe and effective warm-up.
Warming up is very simply defined as any lower intensity exercise that gradually builds into higher intensity exercise. No stretching needed.
Could stretching be a part of a warm up routine? Of course. Especially in the case of those sports we listed above, but it’s not a “need” like everyone usually describes it to be.
5. Replacing Stretching with Physical Activity
If you are physically active on a daily basis…you probably already have acceptable ROM across the board.
Walking, Running, Jumping, Lifting, Biking, Swimming…all of these things are going to move your joints and muscles through their full range of motion, and even more so STRENGTHEN them through their full range of motion.
All the great benefits you’d be getting from stretching you are probably already getting with your regular physical activity.
I say this because some people may not realize they are already actively stretching with their normal activities.
Reaching down for a pair of dumbbells for RDL’s? You need a healthy ROM to do so. Biking requires your knee to flex and extend through it’s full ROM to move the pedals. Pullups require your shoulders and elbows to move through their full ROM to reach the top of the bar and the hanging position. Squatting requires a good degree of ankle and knee flexibility to be done properly.
All of these movements you do are forcing your muscles to stretch whether you know it or not, and unless you need the additional ROM (or you aren’t currently being physically active), you may not need to add any extra stretching to your routine at all.
6. A Final Case For Stretching
I don’t want this article to come off as “anti-stretching“. I will support anything and everything physical activity related.
More so, I believe that the purported effects of stretching have become extremely overblown with time. I always like for individuals to know WHY they are doing a certain thing, and far too often I’ll see people diligently following a stretching routine for all of the wrong reasons.
There are two good reasons to stretch. 1. You want to increase your ROM. 2. You enjoy stretching. Both are equally valid.
Beyond that your stretching routine could most likely easily be replaced by some daily physical activity and you are going to be just as healthy as ever.