A bend here, a twist there. Most of us give minimal thought to our stretching routines. But here’s the thing: The way you stretch could make or break your workout. And, unfortunately, when it comes to stretching, most of what we think we know is actually bogus.
It’s not your fault — many stretching myths are actually rooted in (now outdated) research. After all, experts are performing studies and uncovering new, pretty surprising, truths every day. But meanwhile, most of us are left still believing what our PE teacher told us back in grade school.
Upgrade your stretching know-how and, ultimately, your fitness results, by learning the truths behind these seven popular stretching myths.
7 Things You Need to Know About Stretching
Myth #1: You should never static stretch before a workout.
Experts have flip-flopped on static stretching (those moves you hold for long periods of time) for decades. First, we were all supposed to bend, hold and repeat before we even thought about running, lifting weights or biking. It would reduce our risk of injury and gear us up for exercise. Then, we were told never to static stretch before a workout; it could wreck our fitness performances, gains, and possibly even cause injury. Now, a new review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism suggests that the truth is actually somewhere in the middle. After combing through 125 studies, researchers determined that static stretches held for less than 60 seconds can be beneficial — but only when they are part of a warm-up that also includes some cardio and dynamic stretching.
Stretch this way: Perform some light cardio, then transition into active and passive stretches.Overdoing it with the static stretches can make your muscles too loose, preventing them from contracting quickly or providing the stabilization you need to keep proper form, explains physical therapist and strength coach Jesse Ellis, P.T., C.S.C.S., manager of physical therapy at EXOS. Need some stretch-spiration? Try this mobility routine from Daily Burn 365’s Gregg Cook. Try to spend 10 to 15 minutes on your entire warm-up to ease your body into exercise and make sure you get the most out of every rep.
“When your muscle ‘fights’ against a stretch, you can actually create larger and larger tears.”
Myth #2: Stretching only benefits the area you stretch.
“Everything is connected,” says Dean Maddalone, C.S.C.S., director of the Professional Athletic Performance Center in New York. He notes that stretching your hamstrings is actually a great way to help alleviate lower back pain. That’s because hamstrings attach to your pelvis, which in turn pulls on your low back.
Stretch this way: Even if only one part of your body feels tense, you should make a point of stretching your entire body every day, Ellis says.
Myth #3: Stretching will prevent you from getting injured.
Unfortunately, stretching won’t necessarily keep you off of the sidelines. In the recent Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism review, only eight studies (out of 125) found that people who stretched before their workout were less likely to suffer exercise injuries. And, by and large, those studies weren’t able to prove that it was the stretching that reduced the incidence of injury. But while stretching may or may not prevent injury in the gym, it can certainly prevent other aches and pains. “Sitting in a desk chair all day keeps various muscle contracted, causing chronic tightness that can cause opposing muscles to get weak,” Ellis says. The result: Tension, headaches, and in extreme cases, muscle imbalances. The latter may actually come back to bite you in terms of exercise injuries, he says.
Stretch this way: For every eight hours you spend at a desk per day, try to get up, move around, and stretch three to six times, Ellis says. (Even if it’s in the bathroom stall — we won’t tell.) And it doesn’t have to be a full-blown stretching routine, either. Just make sure you hit your chest, neck, hip flexors and quads — they can all contribute to tension or even throw off your posture.
“Flexibility is largely genetic, so it doesn’t tell you a ton about your overall muscle health.”
Myth #4: Stretching should hurt
“No pain, no gain” doesn’t really apply to stretching. “When you stretch a muscle too far, pain receptors in that muscle will fire in an attempt to stop the muscle’s stretch and protect your tissues,” Maddalone says. As a result, your muscle actually tenses up further, which is the last thing you want, Ellis says. Plus, when your muscle “fights” against a stretch, you can actually create larger and larger tears in your muscles. No bueno.
Stretch this way: If you start to break form in a stretch, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re stretching beyond your flexibility, Ellis says. Dial things back and focus on performing stretches that feel good. Also make sure to breathe slowly and deeply through the stretch, as doing so will help relax your muscles, he says.
Myth #5: Stretching relieves post-workout soreness.
Post-workout stretches feel great, but they won’t keep you from waking up the next morning with sore muscles. Multiple studies, including a 2011 Cochrane review, found that neither pre- or post-workout stretching reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), that ache you feel in your muscles one to two days after a tough workout. It’s microscopic tears in the muscles that create soreness, and it’s a totally healthy part of the exercise recovery process — so don’t wish it away, Ellis says. It’s when your muscles naturally heal those tears that they get stronger and fitter.
Stretch this way: As long as it feels good — and it doesn’t cause problems — why not keep stretching? Just make sure to focus on gentle, rather than deep, stretches. If you’re not stretching, it’s possible that you’ll form additional tears in your muscles that will prevent the tissues from repairing themselves like they should, Maddalone says.
Myth #6: If you’re flexible, you don’t need to stretch.
Stretching is about way more than flexibility. It helps relax tense muscles, correct posture, fight stress and can help you warm up and cool down, says kinesiologist Stephanie Dietz, manager of cycologist development at Cyc in New York City. What’s more, flexibility is largely genetic, so it doesn’t tell you a ton about your overall muscle health.
Stretch this way: Stretch every day, no matter your fitness routine or level of flexibility. “I particularly recommend stretching in the morning after you wake up because your body has been in a static position for eight or more hours,” Dietz says. “It’s important to practice a few stretches at different times throughout the day as well.”
Myth #7: Post-workout stretching is negotiable.
Skipping the last 10 minutes of your spin class is not an option. Going straight from high-intensity exercise to the locker room shocks the system and doesn’t let your body cool down properly, Ellis says. And in one Journal of Human Kinetics study, Spanish researchers found that cooling down with some light exercise and then static stretching boosts next-day exercise performance, perhaps because their muscles were better able to recover. And better workouts lead to better results — period.
Stretch this way: After starting the cool-down process with a few minutes of lighter exercise, complete roughly 10 minutes of static stretching. Focus on the areas you stressed during your workout, Maddalone says. But make sure not to neglect any body part, whether you worked it or not.