Athlete Stretching

Over the years research has shown again and again that stretching does not prevent injury and won’t help endurance performance — but it can cause harm.

Runners, cyclists, swimmers, and other athletes use various types of static stretching routines, and sports medicine professionals, and coaches often recommend stretching, too.

Unfortunately, most are doing so out of tradition rather than from any scientific basis.

For many years, professionals who opposed stretching have argued that stretching does not reduce the risk of injury or improve athletic performance,  and that it can contribute to injury and reduce performance. Those opposed to stretching have relied on two different perspectives in which to make their claims.

The first perspective is a clinical one. This includes physical findings whereby a muscle’s function is shown to diminish after it’s stretched. Other observations are made as well – take a group of athletes divided into stretchers and non-stretchers, and many more injuries will be found in the first group.

I first learned about the dangers of stretching in the mid 1970s, and by the early 1980s. As I gained more experience treating and training athletes, I developed an even better clinical perspective. By that time I had many hundreds of athletes to compare. The results were that in those who were injured a significant number were regular stretchers. Meanwhile, among athletes who did not stretch, injury rates were significantly lower.

While these were simply my own observations, many in sports medicine who recommended stretching often claimed they had the opposite perspective — stretching helped athletes.

Clinicians who evaluated muscle function in athletes observed one outstanding factor — stretching a muscle could make it longer (the reason it increases flexibility), and this resulted in a reduction in function from a loss of power. In other words, stretching caused abnormal inhibition — weakness. There was a consensus on this issue by many, although certainly not all, clinicians.

Despite these notions, the tradition of stretching became a difficult one to break for millions of athletes — it’s as ritualistic as reading the new running shoe reviews. It often starts in young athletes who are encouraged by coaches to stretch to reduce injuries.

Trying to rationalize against strong tradition was not easy. I often used a common example of the increased injury rate in stretchers versus non-stretchers regarding the hamstring muscles. It is both the most frequently injured muscle group and the most stretched. Studies now show that stretching does not make tight hamstrings less stiff.

The decade of the 80s saw a dramatic rise in the number of recreational runners, along with the new endurance sport of triathlon. Combined with more athletes on university and college campuses, researchers had what they needed: more subjects for research. Studies began appearing that showed stretching not only did not reduce injuries or improve performance, but could actually do the opposite.

This was the start of the much-needed second perspective — published research. It continues today. For the most part, these carefully conducted human studies have shown that stretching decreases a muscle’s force production capacity — in other words it causes weakness. This and other unhealthy side effects of stretching have been demonstrated in various muscle-function tests using electromyographic, dynamometer, mechanomyographic, and similar devices commonly used in human research.

One particular study, conducted by J. Cramer and colleagues from the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Texas, compared changes in muscles that were stretched and not stretched in the same person. It concluded that stretching one muscle can also impair another muscle that was not stretched, possibly through a central nervous system inhibitory mechanism. In other words, by weakening a muscle through stretching, the brain and spinal cord may trigger other muscles that are not stretched to become weak as well. This may occur, for example, even in muscles in the left leg when those in the right leg are stretched.

Other studies demonstrated adverse effects on lower limb power, sprinting ability, vertical jump and aerobic endurance training. Despite these studies, the tradition of stretching continues in power sports, track and field, basketball and endurance sports.

While the studies show that these abnormal changes induced in a stretched muscle can last for an hour, some clinicians have demonstrated that stretching can cause prolonged muscle problems that can last days and even weeks.

As studies on stretching increased over the years, another type of evaluation — one that assesses a large group of studies and the subjects used for them — was performed. Ian Shrier, M.D., a past president of the Canadian Society of Sports Medicine, published such a study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine in 1999 titled “Stretching Before Exercise Does Not Reduce the Risk of Local Muscle Injury.” Among his conclusions were that stretching can produce damage in muscles, and that stretching can mask muscle pain.

An important issue almost got lost in what sometimes became a heated debate. There were few, if any, published studies that consistently demonstrated that stretching reduced injuries or improved endurance performance — the two main reasons given for stretching.

Confusion arises when a study shows that ranges of motion or flexibility improve with stretching. This has been shown by some studies. However, increased range of motion at what cost? These studies don’t address an important question. One problem caused by stretching is that muscles become too loose — weaker — allowing the associated joint to move in a wider range of motion. This increased range of motion/flexibility puts more stress on the joint, which is no longer supported properly by the muscle, increasing the risk of injury.

Damaging a muscle through any means, including stretching, will obviously have an adverse effect on an athlete’s gait. The loss of smooth, efficient movement puts stress on virtually all other structures — ligaments, tendons, joints and bones, in addition to many muscles. The body tries to compensate for this irregular movement, and in doing so uses up more energy, taking away from one’s performance. A recent study by Jacob Wilson and colleagues from Florida State University showed how stretching can result in poor running economy, increasing energy consumption during an endurance event, and decreasing performance.

My recommendation has always been to include an active, aerobic warm up as part of each workout or race. This can be accomplished through slow running, biking, swimming or any aerobic activity that last at least 12-15 minutes. In addition to improving oxygen utilization, lung capacity and fat-burning, it increases flexibility in a safe way. Stretching cannot do the same.

With increased awareness and scientific knowledge, more athletes, sports medicine professionals and coaches are quietly changing sides in the stretching vs. non-stretching debate. We welcome them.

 

UPDATE #1:
For a discussion of Yoga, post-exercise stretching, and stretching for prevention of muscle tightness (rather than for eliminating present tightness), see comment to James Allen (https://philmaffetone.com/dangers-of-stretching/#comment-28712).

UPDATE #2:
For a discussion of passive stretching for the purposes of acquiring extreme range of motion for sports that require it (such as Ballet, Gymnastics, or Martial Arts), please see my comment to Khonsura (https://philmaffetone.com/dangers-of-stretching/#comment-28731).

 

Partial Bibliography

  • Bacurau RF et al. Acute effect of a ballistic and a static stretching exercise bout on flexibility and maximal strength 2009 J Strength Cond Res 23: 304-8.
  • Cramer JT et al. The acute effects of static stretching on peak torque, mean power output, electromyography, and mechanomyography. Eur J Appl Phsiol 2005;93(5-6): 530-9.
  • Kubo, K, Kanehisa, H, and Fukunaga, T. Is passive stiffness in human muscles related to the elasticity of tendon structures? Eur J Appl Physiol 2001;85: 226-32.
  • Nelson AG et al. Acute effects of passive muscle stretching on sprint performance. J Sports Sci 2005;23: 449-54.
  • Wilson, Jacob M et al. Effects of Static Stretching on Energy Cost and Running Endurance Performance. J Strength Cond Res 2010;24 (9): 2274-79.
  • Young, W and Elliott, S. Acute effects of static stretching, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, and maximum voluntary contractions on explosive force production and jumping performance. Res Q Exerc Sport 2001;72: 273-9.

63 Comments

  • PAUL DALY says:

    I’ve read dozens of articles like this and they all fail to answer the obvious follow up question: so if I’m not stretching, how DO i improve my range of motion??

    • PAUL:

      That is a great question. The short of it (not a comprehensive toolkit by any means) is the following.

      Note: each of these steps may take a few days or more of work to show any significant gains, and “gains” will not stick (in other words, they’re not real gains) until the final step is mastered. Skipping steps is also a great way to get injured, as the joint is unprepared for the next step in the process. The reason why babies don’t have to do this for any of the gains that translate into walking and running is twofold: (1) babies come out of the womb with nigh-complete ROM, and (2) they have years to learn how to stabilize joints under very mild conditions (crawling, creeping) with a very small body mass to stabilize.

      1) Understand the dependencies between your muscles: why is your muscle tight? Is it picking up the slack for some weak muscle? Is the muscle tight because of psychological stress (think: shoulder tightness)?

      2) While heeding these dependencies as to not cause another muscle to tighten in a 3rd location (so that a 3rd muscle doesn’t have to pick up the slack for the muscle you are about to relax), use myofascial release to relax the muscle and open up new range of motion.

      3) Move the muscle through the new range of motion passively with the aid of a resistance band. (Note: you are not creating range of motion here. You are passively exploring range of motion you got in step 2).

      4) In a stable body position (e.g. laying on your back), take the limb to the endpoint of the new range of motion you discovered and through eccentric work, return it to its neutral position.

      5) In a stable position, take the limb from neutral position to the endpoint of the new range of motion through concentric work.

      6) In an unstable position (e.g. standing) that requires the body to stabilize the limb you are working on (passive stability), take the limb from neutral position to the endpoint of the new range of motion through concentric work.

      7) In an unstable position that requires the limb you are working on to stabilize the body (active stability), perform some movement that requires use of the new range of motion you’ve integrated into your motor patterns through steps 1-6.

      8) Integrate the new range of motion into a skilled full-body function that uses that range of motion (depending on the limb/joint, it could be walking, squatting, kicking, tackling, throwing, etc).

      As you can see, the process is quite complex. Each step requires a very sophisticated understanding of the human body on some level (and explaining it to be useful to any individual who may read it is a whole other ball game). I suspect most experts don’t write about it because a post that involves all of this would take a significant amount of time to write. However, there are books on the matter. I’ll try to find you a good seminal work.

      • PAUL DALY says:

        thanks very much. really appreciated. Are there any resources you can suggest for further reading?

        • PAUL:

          I would start with Gray Cook’s book Movement (http://graycookmovement.com/?p=39), and then start exploring various books and training strategies in the whole Gray Cook/FMS ecosystem. There’s a lot more to it than just what Gray Cook has to say (as with any expert in any field), but I like Gray because he does a very good job of simplifying this and making it understandable for beginners. (He also offers fantastic insights that as far as I know are unique to him.)

  • Richard Wilson says:

    What about static stretching post-run?

  • Jonathan Kitto says:

    I am not one to question the validity of the science presented or the authors experience and observations, however I have observed that I get less injured when I incorporate gentle stretching into my cool down and recovery process. When I do not stretch, recovery takes longer and injury is more frequent.

  • Rebecca King says:

    Interesting article. I’ve often doubted the need for pre exercise stretching.
    Some of these studies refer to stretching before exercise but does this apply to post exercise stretching?
    Also if stretching hinders athletic endurance performance does that mean that yoga, for example which involves lost if stretching poses, is not good for endurance athletes?
    Also, I enjoy a good stretch (especially first thing on a morning or after a nap!) does that mean I shouldn’t?

    • Rebecca:

      Thanks for your comment. For your first question: see my comment to James Allen (https://philmaffetone.com/dangers-of-stretching/#comment-28712).

      For your second question: You can still actively stretch and get much of the pleasure out of stretching after a nap. If you’re talking about “stretching” to get your body full, normal range of motion and you feel that “rush,” that’s generally OK. But if you are talking about “stretching” to forcefully increase the range of motion (ROM) of a particular muscle, then you shouldn’t.

  • Andrew Thomas says:

    If I don’t stretch my quads and hamstrings then over time they often tighten-up and get painful. I just stretch very gently – I am not trying to increase the range of motion at all – I’m not trying to be a high-hurdler, I am just preventing them from tightening. That’s my experience.

  • Andrew Thomas says:

    I think the key thing is that when I stretch I do not try to put my body in any unnatural position (totally unlike the appalling position of the woman shown further up this article). I only use positions which any able-bodied person should be able to achieve. For example, to stretch my quads I simply kneel, and any fit person should be able to kneel. But it’s an effective stretch if your quads are tight. To stretch my hamstrings, I just put my leg out horizontally onto a chair, not bending the top of my body over at all (unlike the woman). Again, any fit person should be able to do that. I’m just ensuring muscles don’t go tight on me.

  • James Allen says:

    I strongly suggest this article and title be edited to clarify “PRE-WORKOUT” static stretching is dangerous; which I totally agree with. My drill instructors in both the Army and Navy forced us to stretch cold muscles, immediately followed by a 5 mile formation run, “calisthenics”, PT, et al…

    It wasn’t until I was deeply immersed in endurance racing bicyles and cross-training with trail running, plyometrics, and core; that I learned of dynamic warm-ups with lunges, jumping jacks, burpees, etc… all at a low intensity and building to the workout effort.

    Static stretching still plays an important part in my post-workout regimen, and is often combined with compression, foam rolling, and/or ice immersion.

    All in all, stretching in and of itself is not necessarily negative; otherwise Yoga would not exist and a whole slice of Southeast Asia would be without work or spiritual exercise…

    Please clarify your articles and titles, and keep up the good work.

    • James:

      Thanks for your comment.

      We’re talking about both pre- and post-workout static stretching.

      I address the most important topics related to your comment (and now the comments of others) below:

      YOGA

      Yoga is not stretching. The positions of (actual Southeast Asian) Yoga are not arrived at by passively or actively stretching muscles. They are arrived at by further aligning the body in specific ways to free up more active range of motion that was restricted due to physiological misalignment and psychological overactivity that translates to neurological overactivity of the motor centers, translating to tightness in specific areas of the body. The bidirectionality of the connection between the psychological, the neurological, and the muscular is why it’s possible for a physical movement such as Yoga to have any purchase on the mind. It’s also why it’s so uncommon to achieve a new level of mental relaxation without the occurrence of an accompanying event of muscular relaxation somewhere in the body. In keeping with this, the original purpose of Yoga is to realign the body in order to perpetuate a meditative state. When Yoga is done for its original purpose and under the correct pedagogical umbrella, it boosts, not hinders, athletic performance.

      MUSCLE TIGHTNESS POST-RUN

      It’s important to understand that most tightness isn’t due to the physical structure of the muscles.

      When muscles are tight after exercise, it’s due to either (a) neurological overactivity of the motor cortex which often presents as sympathetic/parasympathetic imbalance (typically due to residual exercise stress) or (b) a lack of ATP in the muscles due to the body’s inability to replenish it (which causes the myosin heads to remain stuck to the actin filaments in the muscles). If you static stretch your muscles in that condition, any ROM gains will be made by ripping the heads off the myosin (bad, bad, bad!).

      PREVENTION of LOSS of RANGE OF MOTION

      The way to avoid Range of Motion (ROM) losses during exercise is habitual prevention outside of the exercise session itself: resolve local power/endurance imbalances in the muscle’s physical structure, as well as neuromuscular imbalances that either cause or are caused by a poor/incomplete proprioceptive/enteroceptive map of the body, or local or global problems with sensation. When enteroceptive and proprioceptive sensation is good enough for the body to be balanced enough neuromuscularly and in terms of the local power and endurance across muscles, PLUS the exercise was not hard/stressful enough for ATP to remain depleted globally across the body or locally for some specific muscle,(and the motor cortex does not remain overactive), you won’t have ROM losses or perceived tightness after exercise.

      When tightness is caused by the physical structure of the muscles (e.g. scar tissue), static stretching post-workout is not the solution. You are risking major damage during the course of exercise by exposing a malfunctioning muscle to any exercise stress. And when that exercise stress is enough to result in overactivity of the motor cortex or an inability to replenish ATP in the muscles (mentioned above), you risk even more damage. And on top of that, ripping some of the few useful remaining actin heads off a significantly scarred muscle is worse than doing so with a healthy muscle.

      The solution to stretching a scarred muscle is neither athletic static stretching (or active stretching) OR yoga. It’s a delicate process that needs to be overseen by a health professional.

      Edit for Andrew Thomas: It’s relatively easy to find active stretching exercises that allow you stave off tightness before it sets in. But this occurs not by the stretching itself, but rather by movement of the muscle that allows it to recharge ATP and so allow the actin heads to release from the myosin, restoring mobility (or reduce residual neurological stress, or both).

      Edit for Jonathan Kitto: When the muscle remains tight because the actin heads remain stuck to the myosin, that would indeed increase your risk of injury (as you would probably be ripping the heads off the myosin in your next exercise session). But static stretching would not reduce your risk level to baseline; the way to accomplish that is through prevention (discussed above).

      • Khonsura says:

        Okay. I am baffled by this claim. How do you explain stretching’ none usefulness in the context of gymnastics and martial arts which require extreme flexiblity, mobility and strenght? I have begun a regimen through Gymnastic Bodies.com with success and have trained in Martial Arts for over 20 years. Should I just forgo stretching and use primarily mobility warm up to go to a higher level. Please help me understand how stretching post training once a week can do more damage then not stretching.

        • Khonsura:

          Thanks for your comment. Excellent (!!!) point. Within the context of this article we’re only talking about stretching as a form of recovery from exercise or regaining range of motion lost due to neuromuscular tightness. Static stretching for producing extreme mobility over a very long period of time is indeed very important for certain activities, and very different from stretching out of tightness.

          Let me talk a little bit about the difference between both.

          Static stretching for recovery/lost range of motion (ROM) in most sports puts the joint into a depth of ROM that you never use and never train actively. For example, someone who only runs will almost never use the hip ROM they acquire by doing asymmetric splits (as pictured above). This means that their hip muscles often never learn how to stabilize the hip joint within the ROM they acquire due to static stretching (which means that have very little hip competence there) and as such they are at a much higher risk for injury as soon as they enter that portion of their ROM.

          On the other hand, when stretching to attempt to acquire extreme mobility, you do so because the core active movements of the sport take up the entirety of that ROM. For these sports, the whole point of stretching to acquire extreme flexibility is to be able to stabilize (and therefore use) the joint in that newly acquired ROM. Martial artists who practice traditional Karate, for example, do the splits precisely in order to learn how to use that newly acquired ROM in a (very much active and very well-stabilized) kick. The body is able to competently move the joint within that ROM, so risk of injury comparative to the other case is dramatically reduced. In terms of static stretching to maintain that extreme ROM, it is acceptable and reasonable for the same reason: athletes in these sports are static stretching to maintain (or get back) a level of ROM that they presumably already learned to stabilize and control.

          However, it is well-documented how injury rates due to poorly stabilized joints across sports that require extreme ROM are actually much higher than sports that do not require such large ROMs. (A cursory search of research on the matter will reveal as much.) This is not because “it just is that way”, but rather because it is simply much more challenging to maintain active control of a joint across a much larger ROM, than it is to maintain active control of that same joint across a much smaller range. (And it is commensurately much more challenging to refresh, retrain, and strengthen that active control when the range of motion is much larger).

          Partly, I suspect that some of the difficulties for injury prevention in these sports is that athletes who participate in extreme flexibility and mobility events are often trying to increase their flexibility and mobility, which implicitly means that they are venturing to acquire more ROM than they presently have the capability to actively stabilize and control. Most athletes do go on and get that new stability and control (because the movements of the sport require it), but (a) some don’t because it is difficult, or (b) they get injured in the interval between acquiring the raw ROM and developing the capacity to actively stabilize and control it.

          I want to reiterate: by no means am I arguing against participating in those sports, OR arguing against a practice (stretching to acquire extreme mobility) that is endemic to those sports. The article and my other comment ONLY apply to static stretching for regaining lost ROM due to neuromuscular tightness of the muscles (rather than a need to make the musculotendinous unit physically grow and remain longer).

          Hope this helps. Please let me know if my answer is satisfactory.

          • Yariv carmeli says:

            It cannot be understood from the article.

            I used to be an endurance athlete for many years.
            After discovering movement practice (thanks to Ido Portal) I understood that I have no abilities part from endurance and Mainly I can only bike/run/swim but cannot “move”.
            The worse part was flexibility and mobility – no range of motion – range of motion is the king.
            Most endurance athletes have poor flexibility, mobility and range of motion.
            Not only they should not avoid it, they should practice it every day!!

          • Yariv, pardon but stretching does not improve mobility. It merely improves passive flexibility. Mobility is improved by retraining the musculature so that a muscle doesn’t have to remain chronically tightened. Most tightness and loss of ROM is due to active contraction of the muscle. Stretching appears to improve ROM because it fatigues and detrains the muscle’s critical stretch reflex. But it does nothing to remove the latent muscle activation, or the underlying need for it.

  • Ben Fury says:

    I agree with your article as it relates to static stretching.

    Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) is as different from static stretching as a 3 lb. pink dumbbell is to a fully loaded Oly bar.

    AIS provides an active warm-up that oxygenates and lengthens muscles. As far as my research reveals, AIS is unique in providing a series of stretches that target all muscle groups from neck to toes through all ranges of motion.

    Since doing a 6-week internship at the Mattes clinic in Sarasota, FL in 2005, I’ve used AIS with clients from weekend warriors to people with severe degenerative conditions for the last twelve years. It’s been an excellent addition to my quiver of techniques and my go to first choice for almost all conditions.

  • MAX AHARTZ says:

    Interesting. What are your thoughts on Yoga? Do you believe practicing it is harmful to athletic performance?

  • Greg says:

    Very interesting, but I found your response to the Yoga question rather confusing.

    “For the right reasons?” I assume that means achieving a meditative state, but how would someone know what type of yoga, and what kind of instructor would be good?

    Thanks.

  • Steven says:

    I have heard a lot about foam rolling muscles after working out. Does this fall into the same category as stretching?

    • Steven:

      No. That is what is called “myofascial release.”

      What myofascial release does is massage the muscle fibers so they become unstuck and can move again. It’s an OK way of removing tightness in the muscles. That said, you only need about 2 lbs of force applied to the muscle through the foam roller to have an effect on muscle fibers. This means that it’s better to not press down hard on the muscle even though it may feel more efficient or impactful—like you’re “digging deep” or whatever. Instead, it’s better to foam roll with very little force across a very large cross-section of muscle for a lot of times.

      • James Allen says:

        This is the only response you’ve provided that was presented in a relatable, and easily comprehended answer.

        The fact that you referenced your initial response to my comment, six times to others, and went back to edit it for clarity is evidence to just how extensively we athletes rely on physical response of our bodies rather than overly complex, and excessively technical explanations on why we should not be doing things like “stretching” to improve our ROM.

        Many of us are just amateur athletes trying to live active lives well into our old age, and do not have advanced degrees or extensive anatomical knowledge of the human physiology.

        Reading your initial response to my comment literally turned me off to reading future articles on this site, commenting on any article, and possibly unsubscribing from the MAF newsletter.

        Initially, I was intrigued by the MAF method and have employed many of his methods/suggestions into my nutrition regimen… that said, no one takes well to being talked “over” by a response to an observation of anecdotal trends and learned behavior that most of us have been using for decades.

        Please take this as my suggestion that many athletes are simply trying to fit in training sessions and subsequent recovery within an overly-demanding schedule and in a world that, honestly, just doesn’t care about applying an 8 step, complex process to achieve better ROM.

        We are seeking solutions that are easy to implement on time-crunched schedules, and explained in layman’s terms.

        Thanks.

        • James:

          Thanks for your feedback.

          I’m sorry that my answer fell flat with you, and if you ever do wish to comment again in the future, I’ll do my best to keep my answers similar in spirit to the answer above.

          I promise I was merely trying to justify in depth and with clarity my statement that “We’re talking about both pre- and post-workout static stretching.” You stated that we should edit our title to specifically exclude post-exercise stretching. However, the dangers of static stretching do extend quite explicitly to post-exercise stretching. The detail in my comment is to explain why that is while giving all the due respect and attention to your comment (and to address the entire “rabbit hole” in case you might be interested).

          Generally speaking, most solutions to complex problems are themselves complex, and by their nature cannot be implemented in a short time frame with a simplified solution. Static stretching post-exercise to relieve tightness actually does not fall into this category at all (as it is not a solution for the underlying issue. It may relieve the specific tightness, but will expose the athlete to other injuries by doing so).

          As far as the general detail of (some of) my comments on this site, they are often quite welcomed my most people, who like discussing these issues in such depth. That has been the lion’s share of my experience on this site.

          I reiterate my apologies, and I hope you’ll come back to the site.

  • Matt says:

    Ivan,

    Is it ok to do AIS after your workout or run? My legs, body always feel better after having stretched them post workout.

    • AIS (when well done) is a good way to end a proper cool-down.

    • James Allen says:

      I guess we just need to agree to disagree then…

      The last time I was professionally fitted to my bicycles, the fitter (A licensed PT, and certified ReTul fitter) made multiple positive comments on my range of motion as contrasted to the majority of riders that he had fitted up to that point.

      I am 42 years old, and can easily touch toes, place the palms of my hands on the ground when bent at the waist, nearly place my knees to the ground when sitting in a Baddha Konasana position (I don’t regularly practice Yoga but looked up the term for the position), pull both feet well past the centerline of my hip from behind, and have a uniquely good sense of balance (on one foot or both).

      I can squat and return to standing without needing stability with hands, forward lunge with bearing weight from one foot, through the entire motion to the other foot, and maintain correct posture.

      This is not to sing my praises, and I do not believe myself to be a physical anomaly/outlier; but to demonstrate that I do not perform any type of pre-workout stretching, nor do I practice/participate in Yoga (though I know I should).

      The only things I have done to sustain/enhance ROM, is a consistent regimen of post-workout stretching those specific joints/muscles, as well as the occasional (rare), use of Myofascial treatment with a foam roller. I typically only use the foam roller when there is a muscle area that is acutely sore/pronounced. For daily training sessions, it’s almost always a 2-3 minute gentle stretch of the activated/trained muscles.

      I race all types of bicycles; mountain, road, gravel, and cyclocross, as well as trail running, and strength training with free weights in my off-season. Every single training plan I have purchased/used, as well as every single coach that wrote those plans; has stretching incorporated into the post-workout sessions. It is part-and-parcel to a huge statistical majority of many athlete’s training…

      Just some cut/paste from my current training plan (Courtesy of Training Peaks)

      “Do 15 minutes of core training. Choose a variety of exercises for your hips, abdominals and back. Examples are bridging, pillar exercises, crunches, back extensions, Pilates. Then do 15 minutes of stretching. Focus on your legs and hips.”

      “After your ride do the following to optimize your recovery: #1: Recovery drink and cool down, #2: 10-15 min ice-bath or cold river soak, #3: snack, #4: clean body, #5: stretch, #6: compression legs, #7 snack or meal, #8: nap. Other things helpful for recovery are massage, getting to bed early, abstaining from alcohol and stimulants.”

      Again, not an attempt to refute yours/Phil’s statements; but to communicate my experiences.

      I believe your intentions to be good… albeit fighting an uphill battle.

      • James:

        Thanks for your gracious comment. In terms of changing the culture, it really is an uphill battle. But in terms of the science of injury-prevention (not to mention the science that studies the physical structure of the muscles) the wind is strongly at our backs.

        It’s quite clear from your comments that you have very good mobility across many of your joints. It doesn’t strike me that you do what we typically mean when we say “static stretching”: a stretch and hold of 30-40 seconds until the stretch reflex is beat and the muscle relaxes. From a muscle mechanics perspective, what you describe seems more to me as if you are taking your muscles to their end range of motion, stimulating them post-exercise. While that would indeed maintain your mobility and perhaps boost it (as that stimulates the muscle fibers towards the ends of the muscles), from what I read of your comment it you aren’t stretching the muscles in the “static stretching” sense where you quite literally pull on the muscle until it gives.

        When you do gentle active “stretching” (a name I much prefer for this is “mobility training” due to the difference in focus) what you are doing is teasing overlapping muscle fibers apart by stimulating them. Please forgive the slightly technical discussion here: When muscles get stiff post-exercise, this is often because of a lack of ATP (which causes the muscle fibers to hold on to each other in that shortened, overlapped position). Stimulating the muscle when it’s in this state (by gently tugging on the ends) brings more ATP in, allowing the muscle fibers relax, letting go of each other. When you take the limb to a deeper position once the muscles have already begun to relax, you are simply causing the muscle fibers to slide free of each other, returning the muscle to its lengthened, relaxed state.

        In this vein, I’d like to point out that any human body (with healthy, mobile muscles) can perform a toe-touch without any need to physically lengthen any muscle or tendon beyond it’s standard shape and size. Almost always, when a human can’t do these kinds of basic movements (also including squatting), it’s because they don’t have the motor control to get the right muscles to relax at the right time (and for the right muscles to contract at the right time).

        I hope this helps.

  • Itzik says:

    Hi ,
    I was doing an armature level Karate practices and some teaching, we have to stretch ‘a lot’ in order to produce accurate and decisive leg techniques, I wonder if there is a practice that I can adopt and teach my Karatekas that could reduce the risk of injuries due to ‘over motion freedom’ in the impacted joints.

    Thanks
    Itzik

    • Itzik:

      Did you get a chance to read my comment (linked to in update #2 at the bottom of the article main text)? I mention it as it adds good context.

      But to answer your question specifically, a good strategy for developing strength in newly-acquired range of motion is to follow stretching by incorporating slow, stable, controlled movements that incorporate that range of motion into active muscle use. My brother is a 2nd degree black belt in Karate, and he does the splits followed by a task where he stands on one leg in a kicking stance, I put a book on his “kicking” leg and he “hands” it to me at the level of the belly button, chest, chin, etc, repeating 50 or 100 times. This is an exercise that lets him incorporate that range of motion into his muscle memory and develop strength, so that he can eventually use it dynamically and at high speed with much lower risk of injury.

      I’m sure there is good documentation of many other such exercises for other joints and movements.

      • Itzik says:

        Thank you Ivan,
        btw we had corresponded a few mounts ago when I started with the carb intolerance test, I continued with the program guidelines even though I haven’t noticed much change in my body’s metabolic rhythm some 8 weeks down the road the change had formed wait loss energy level increased my blood-work ‘numbers’ improved dramatically. Now I can go for a 2 days hike with nothing but a few nuts and a couple of boiled eggs a day without loosing stamina.
        I’m extending my thanks to Phil and yourself the results are very positive and significant.

  • Jason says:

    In light of the topic above on stretching, where do you stand on yoga as a form of exercise?

  • DvK says:

    Hi Ivan. I am a runner who has Achilles pain (also mild plantar fasciitis). In addition to hip muscle strengthening, my PT suggests stretching my calf muscles (holding for at least 30 seconds, 3-5 sets, in two different positions) post-run so they don’t tug so hard on the Achilles tendons. Does that make any sense? I also try to stretch out my hips via pigeon pose, and they always feel better after. Thanks much for any insight you can offer on this.

    • DvK:

      Thanks for your comment.

      If you scroll through more of the comments here (and basically on any article on the internet about stretching) you’ll quickly see that people have a bunch of different things in mind when they say “stretch.” So I’d just like to take a sec to clarify. When “stretching” is the kind of “stretch and hold” that causes the classic pain that then goes away after about 20-30 seconds, then that’s bad: what you’re basically doing is training the muscle to eliminate it’s natural and important stretch reflex (which causes it to shorten reflexively to stretching). The body uses this reflex to stabilize itself quickly and competently when there is any unexpected movement. On the other hand, if your PT suggests a gentler “stretch” that mobilizes the muscles and joint for increased range of motion, without “beating” the pain or discomfort, that’s OK.

      Generally, I’d stay away from deep stretches such as pigeon pose unless you’re a ballet dancer or a martial artist that will train the muscles to be strong across all that range of motion. The rule of thumb is that if you’re learning to come in and out actively of a pigeon pose (or any other movement that requires a deep range of motion) then you’re developing some measure of strength across all that range of motion that reduces your risk of injury. But if you “stretch into” a pigeon pose, or just relaxing out of it and crumpling to the ground, then there’s a big chance that you’re beating the stretch reflex and causing your muscles to become less capable of stabilizing your joints.

      The reason the back calf muscles get tight is generally because the front calf muscles (especially the tibialis anterior muscle) aren’t strong enough to support the body well while running, or for some reason they never “joined the team” with the rest of the body’s musculature when producing the running movement. This stops the calves from moving well (because they tighten) which then stops the hips from moving well (and they often tighten as well). So the real goal here is to get the front calf muscles working and get them to “join the team.”

      I wouldn’t go against anything your PT says, (as they will know far more about you than I do). But generally speaking, I’d include any stretching in this 4-step process:

      1) foam rolling the tight muscle (see my comment to Steven: https://philmaffetone.com/dangers-of-stretching/#comment-28770).
      2) Gentle stretching (let’s call it “calf and ankle mobilization”) HERE.
      3) Exercising the anterior tibialis muscle with an exercise such as the one shown in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZhPw__uulw
      4) do very gentle squats or lunges with minimum to zero weight, or just jog around for a few minutes to integrate the newfound muscle activation into a full-body movement.

  • DvK says:

    Thank you for the clarification and the detailed and extremely helpful advice. Will definitely give it a try. I very much appreciate your time and insights. (P.S. Can you activate the link in #2 for calf and ankle mobilization? Thx.)

  • Matt says:

    Thanks for the great article. I am a lifelong athlete that depends on the health and physical performance of my body to perform both of my jobs and recreation. I appreciate the effort to warn against injury and guide us in the right direction. I do still have some gains to be made in my ankles and hips to be able to lift patients, tools and myself from the ground in a healthy way for years to come. I came across your material from the book natural born heroes and have pursued the active movement from teachers like Erwan Le Corre, Ido Portal, the Gracie family, etc.

    I am very impressed by the energy given to the comments and responses. I know this is a hotly debated topic and how increased ROM is achieved safely and effectively is extremely hard to communicate to so many individual situations. I have used yoga, AIS and static stretching to achieve a healthier (not extreme) ROM in some areas but not all my target areas. I appreciate the anatomy and physiology you explained in the comments regarding stretching, yoga, and foam rolling. I have used all of these methods; effectively in the blind with basic instructions to work harder at it.

    For attaining a healthy ROM to be able to move you body in a safe and natural way what methodology would you recommend?

  • Dr Madhusudan. G says:

    “Strength of the muscle is directly proportional to the initial length of the muscle fiber”…
    It is written in the physiology text books and we have conducted experiments on frog’s muscle in physiology lab.
    What say?

  • Yuri says:

    Thanks Ivan for your helpful comments.
    As an additional point – the comments haven’t touched upon asymmetries in body posture, body planes, joints, muscles etc. Having a lot of asymmetries in my body, mostly in feet, pelvis and thoracic section, gentle stretching with joint stabilization by activating muscles around the joints (trying not to use other support) helps me feel a more whole myself. I’m not sure if that could be taken as stretching?

  • Henry says:

    Hi Ivan.
    Thanks for the article and the ensuing debate.
    Can you point us towards literature, videos, articles what we should be doing to prepare our body’s for activity and how to warm down as an alternative to “Static Stretching”?
    Thanks

  • Sergio says:

    Hello Ivan. Thank you for such an accurate article, I totally agree with your statements from a scientific perspective.

    Now, after reading this, “I’d like to point out that any human body (with healthy, mobile muscles) can perform a toe-touch without any need to physically lengthen any muscle or tendon beyond it’s standard shape and size. Almost always, when a human can’t do these kinds of basic movements (also including squatting), it’s because they don’t have the motor control to get the right muscles to relax at the right time (and for the right muscles to contract at the right time).” I wonder how is it possible to correct it the right way as I am one of those individuals who cannot perform a toe-touch.

    Thank you so much!

    • Sergio:

      Sorry for the late reply.

      Check out Gray Cook’s book, “Athletic body in balance.” I’m pretty sure he has a fantastic toe-touch progression there. If by any chance I’m wrong, the exercises inside are still fantastic and I’ll go look for the progression on my own.

  • Kelcey says:

    What about foam rolling?

  • Alina says:

    Hi Ivan,
    First of all I wanted to say that I love all your innovative ideas on this website. You definitively do not follow the herd.
    Unfortunately I am very frustrated at the same time. From the looks of the comments I am not the only frustrated one. I would really like to follow your ideas but you do not include enough information in your articles. Reading them leaves me with many unanswered questions and this article is no exception. I am very grateful that you respond to questions in a caring manner but I agree with James Allen’s comment that your responses are overly technical and not for the layman. Could you please come down to our level (LOL).
    I have looked into Gray Cook but his stuff is for trainers and coaches. Plus, surprisingly, he uses stretching! That was confusing.
    What else could you recommend? I have come across MovNat, animal flow, Convict Conditioning. Are any of them good? I actually really like Convict Conditioning. What do you recommend for mobility and functional training?
    You said: “the original purpose of Yoga is to realign the body in order to perpetuate a meditative state.” I could not agree more and you said that there are some good yoga types but you have not given us any suggestions. I have almost given up on yoga because it is so commercialized. Basically yoga in studios is all about fitness/stretching/aerobic classes so it would be great to get some yoga suggestions from you.
    Thank you!

    • Hi, Alina:

      I wound encourage you to look deeper into Gray Cook’s philosophy. If you’ll notice, in one of the other comments I outlined that sometimes you do mobilize the muscle to pull on it to create raw mobility, but then go on immediately to root that new mobility in a stability foundation. (And then skill, and so on). This is the “stretching” that Gray Cook promotes, and when he uses it, it is the initial step in a very specific process that has to be concluded before you ever go out and exert that muscle or joint. In my opinion, Gray Cook has one of the most sophisticated systems for developing movement skill.

      I like MovNat, but in my opinion they don’t have a theoretical foundation anywhere near of the quality of Gray Cook. I don’t know about all the others. In this regard, the reason I like Gray Cook is that functional training is about integrating the joints together and having them work together to produce an array of movements. But if one or several of your joints is limited in sensation, mobility, etc. it’s important to be able to address the problem with a very high degree of specificity, and find a specific solution, before attempting to integrate it with functional movement drills. This is what Gray Cook brings to the table.

      As far as yoga, I wish I had a specific contact to give you. The problem is that there are good and bad practitioners across every type of yoga. While most of the modern/appropriative yoga for “toning the body” simply doesn’t follow the original purpose of yoga, there are many practitioners of “traditional” yoga styles who are moving in the direction of pleasing the western fitness audience. It’s really a matter of doing your due diligence and expecting to go through 5 or 10 teachers before you finish your search—the same as a gymnast, ballet dancer, or martial artist searching for a good teacher.

      More generally, the problem is that biomechanic issues are very complex. Everyone’s body is slightly different from the outset, and everybody goes on to live a slightly different life. And because the body has so many moving parts, you get people moving in thousands of subtly different (and inefficient) ways. In many cases, you need to be able to know precisely what is going on, and then understand the sequence in which puzzle pieces have to be addressed.

      This means that I can explain the general gist of biomechanics in a simple way, but there is no way to give you simple advice that you can then go on and use on yourself and expect to succeed (unless the advice is for a specific issue that has been previously assessed at length).

      Hope this helps,

      Ivan

  • Robert Marino says:

    Hi Ivan,

    Thanks for your time in answering all these questions.

    Having read the article and the comments to this particular article multiple times my question is this: I have done Ashtanga yoga for about 4 years. There appear to be many static stretches in this practice. For example a seated forward fold. We hold this posture for 10 breaths, about 30 seconds. Is this not a static stretch, or am I missing something? Is there something about alignment in yoga that would preclude something like a seated forward fold from being a static stretch?

    Thank you,

    Robert

    • Hello Robert:

      A static stretch is when you pull on a muscle until the stretch reflex gives way. The reason most people perceive tight muscles when they do a toe touch (for example) is because they are misaligned: the muscle is contracting in order to lend integrity to a structure that is unstable because it is misaligned. The process of alignment eliminates the need for muscles to lend integrity through continuous contraction. The increase in range of motion produced by alignment is due to the fact that a muscle was able to release and work as part of a team.

      The reason that static stretching has been correlated with an increase risk for injury is because in this case, the range of motion is produced by tugging on the muscle until it gives, rather than creating the conditions for it to cease contracting continuously and integrate itself into the team. It is often the case that people attempt to achieve a yoga pose not through alignment but through forcing the position. Whenever this is the case, they are creating the conditions you find in static stretching.

  • Robert says:

    Thanks a lot Ivan!

    Robert

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