Courtesy Harley Pasternak
Harley Pasternak
April 17, 2013 03:00 PM

To stretch or not to stretch?

Stretching is crucial in order to balance strength and flexibility. How we stretch, however, can either provide us with great benefits or cause major problems.

Below I’ve debunked some common myths about stretching and offered some guidelines to ensure optimal results.

1. You should stretch before and after a workout: FALSE
A new study out this month is making quite a splash in and out of the fitness community, even catching the attention of Time Magazine and the New York Times.

Published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the study concludes that not only is static stretching (or holding a stretch without moving) before you work out not beneficial; it could actually be harmful. Static stretching a “cold” muscle before warming-up actually temporarily weakens the muscle, diminishing strength performance and increasing the likelihood of injury during workout.

You may think: Then why do I see NFL kickers doing swinging stretches before a big kick? Or why do basketball players do lunges and crabwalks before a game? Or MLB players swinging and stretching their arms?

Because that kind of stretching – known as dynamic stretching – is done after a warm-up and is based on flexibility within a certain range of motion. The athlete is basically warming up the muscles that will be used in that activity by replicating the activity itself (although not at its maximum range of motion). You won’t see hurdlers doing a “v-sit and reach” before a race, you’ll see them jumping, kicking and doing dynamic stretching.

2. Stretching reduces your chance of getting injured: FALSE
In fact, only a warm-up (gentle aerobic activity done prior to intense exercise) can reduce your chance of getting hurt.

Think of your muscles, tendons and ligaments as cold elastic bands. If you try to stretch them, they’ll probably tear. If, on the other hand, you put them in hot water for few minutes, then try to stretch them, they’ll be incredibly pliable.

Even though dozens of studies to date have failed to show any reduction in injuries with stretching after a workout (or any other time throughout the day except for the hours before a workout), stretching after a workout feels good (like a massage) and can help your body to relax after working hard.

3. Never bounce in a stretch: TRUE
Forget what your elementary school gym teacher said because bouncing in a stretch – or “ballistic stretching” – is a bad idea.

Ballistic stretching uses your body’s momentum to repeatedly push the limit of your stretch, increasing the chance of a serious, painful muscle strain or tear.

Bouncing also causes micro-tears in the muscle that leave scar tissue as the muscle heals, which tightens the muscle even further – actually decreasing your functional flexibility.

4. A good stretch hurts: FALSE
Stretching should feel good.

If you feel pain – especially sharp pain – during a stretch, you could be overstretching the muscle and doing more harm than good. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, to stretch a muscle, it should be put in a position that produces a slight pull on the muscle but not to the point of pain.

5. Stretching prevents muscle soreness: FALSE
There is a common misconception out there that stretching after a hard workout can prevent muscle soreness later. The most common theory on DOMS (Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness) is that it’s as a result of microscopic “damage” to the fibers of the muscles involved the exercise, and stretching can’t undo that damage or speed up healing.

Unfortunately, while stretching may help prevent stiffness in range of motion, it won’t prevent the actual soreness. In a review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers compiled and analyzed data from 12 previous studies that examined the impact of pre- and post-exercise stretching on DOMS.

What they found is that there was really no significant difference in reported soreness between the participants who stretched and those who didn’t.

A good warm-up is vital for a safe workout by literally warming up the body, which loosens our muscles and tendons and increases our range of motion, but there s no real proof that this prevents DOMS either. The only thing we can really do is ease ourselves into new activities. Walk before you run, and your muscles will have more time to adapt to new stresses.

6. Stretching can relieve back pain: TRUE
Whether it is because of the way we sit at the office, our commute to and from work, pregnancy or otherwise, a whopping 80% of American adults have been bothered by back pain at some point in their lives (including me).

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on back pain. Perhaps we should then consider what we can do now to prevent back pain later (or even ease pain now!).

Studies show that stretching and strengthening the muscles in the back and those supporting the back can significantly reduce back pain. Try alternating 20 reps of Superman exercise with 20 seconds of a cobra stretch.

Do you love or hate to stretch? Tweet me @harleypasternak

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