Stretching has for a long time been a misunderstood part of fitness and health. Many people state that stretching is essential to maximise muscle growth, fitness and performance. I was once advised by a fitness instructor at a large commercial health club, that if you failed to stretch after weight training, muscle growth would be reduced by 75%.
This seemed absurd to me at the time, and now recent research has shown that stretching may actually be of little benefit to people. Obviously those that are training in martial arts, dance, or any activity that requires that you extend your limbs beyond the range that is normal, need to stretch.
But for people looking to improve general fitness and strength, then the elaborate limbering up routines that are often done by many athletes and gym users have been shown to do little to prevent muscle aches and stiffness. So, should you stretch before exercise?
Stretch Does Little to Prevent Aches and Pains
The results, published in the Cochrane Review, are likely to prove fiercely contentious as fitness experts have long advised that stretching is vital to increase flexibility, improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.
Several other studies in the last few years have also cast doubt on the efficacy of stretching, some even suggesting that it may cause more problems than it solves. Having more flexible muscles could actually increase the risk of strains, while stretching can cause tiny tears in muscle tissue, weak can create weak links that can lead to injury in high impact sports and exercise.
However, the latest analysis was not a study of the effect of stretching on injury prevention, but on muscle soreness after exercise.
The research was carried out by a group from the University of Sydney, who compiled the results of ten small scientific trials, each involving between 10 and 30 people. These had examined the effects of stretching between 40 seconds and 600 seconds before exercise. Dr Robert Herbert, from the school of physiotherapy at the university, sums the research up as follows:
- 10 studies produced very consistent findings
- They showed there was minimal, or no effect, on the muscle soreness experienced between half a day and three days after the physical activity.
- Stretching before or after exercise does not prevent muscle soreness in young healthy adults.
- Using a 100 point scale to assess stiffness after exercise, most of the trials found that stretching reduced soreness by less than one point. The size of the effect was similar if stretching was performed before or after exercise.
The studies were based on already fit and healthy young adults. The researchers say more work is needed to find out if stretching can help older, less fit people.
No Evidence That Stretching Before Exercise is Good for Muscles
Dr Polly McGuigan, an expert in exercise and sport at Bath University, UK, agreed there was no evidence that stretching muscles did any good before exercising.
“In fact there is some evidence that pre-exercise stretching could do some harm,” she said. “There is no really good explanation out there for why stretching could reduce post-exercise aches and injuries, or improve performance. For recreational athletes, the important thing to do is to warm up, rather than stretch. That means starting off with some gentle exercise, such as spending ten minutes on a rowing machine or jogging at a slower pace. That gets the circulation going. Any exercise session should end with a cooling down period to help get rid of waste products from the muscles. There are an awful lot of athletes who swear by stretching, and wouldn’t dream of going out with a pre-exercise stretch. But the evidence isn’t there.”
In addition to the effects of stretching, it has been shown that shock-absorbent insoles often found in expensive running and training shoes, are little better at protected joints and the back than standard brands. Shoes and insoles marketed as offering relief for back pain are of questionable benefit, researchers claim.
In a study of 2,300 people, many found little difference and others said they shifted the pain from their back to their knees. Lead researcher Dr Tali Sahar, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said: “We do need some good studies of the effect of insoles on existing or recurrent back pain, so that we can make recommendations with a greater sense of certainty.”
For many people stretching forms parts of a warm up, so it is important to remember that although stretching may not be helping to eliminate muscle soreness after your training session, it may still be acting to warm the muscles up in readiness for more demanding physical activity.