To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question. At least it has been lately with the science of stretching being called into question. Think touching those toes is the best way to prep for a run? It might be time to rethink that pre-workout ritual. New research suggests good old-fashioned stretching isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Instead, mobility might just be the key to unlocking our bodies’ true potential, bringing us closer to peak performance.
Stretching the Truth
It all started back in middle school phys ed. Somewhere amidst the countless games of dodge ball and awkward locker room moments was our first encounter with static stretching. Bend down, try to touch the floor, and count to 10. Easy enough. From there we’d round out the warm-up with some rudimentary calisthenics and voilà: no injuries or soreness!
Trouble is, there’s little evidence to support that scenario. That’s not to say that static stretching is a bad thing, just that it may not live up to the lofty claims. For instance, in an effort to better understand the link between stretching and soreness researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia reviewed 12 different studies completed in the past 25 years. They concluded that, “stretching does not produce important reductions in muscle soreness in the days following exercise.” Similarly, Robert D. Herbert, a researcher who participated in the review, also found static stretching wasn’t a safeguard against injury. According to Dr. Herbert, stretchers and non-stretchers experienced about the same number of sports-related injuries.
Maximizing Your Ability
While the great stretching debate rages on, there may be a better way to bulletproof our bodies. Kelly Starrett, a former elite-level athlete, hybrid coach, physical therapist, author and CrossFit instructor, believes that opting for mobility prep over stretching is the key to hacking the body’s mechanics. Therefore, instead of static stretching, Starrett favors a “movement-based integrated full-body approach, which addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance.”
In the course of working with thousands of athletes in the gym and in his physical therapy practice, Starrett learned that 98 percent of orthopedic injuries are preventable, he says. The root of these injuries was a lack of understanding about “simple mechanics and the tools to improve those mechanics.” Therefore, Starrett advocates at least 10 minutes of mobility work each day, no matter what, because “miss a day and you go backwards,” he says.
Get to work on your mobility with these five tips sure to maximize the way your body moves.
1. Swap Out Stretching
Leave the land of static stretching behind in favor of the dynamic warm-up. By completing moves that mimic those you’ll be doing in your routine, the body will be adequately prepared for whatever workout, practice or game lies ahead. Bodyweight exercises like the squat and athletic based movements like toy soldiers or lateral shuffles will elevate the heart rate while heating up the muscles and getting your joints moving effectively.
2. Get the Gear
There’s a little more to this mobility thing than “reach and hold.” With that in mind, prepare for movement maintenance by picking up the tools of the trade. Starrett recommends three lacrosse balls, two of which will be taped together (or opt for the SKLZ Accupoint if you’re feeling fancy). Next, a thick resistance band is ideal. Top off your toolbox with a foam roller or four-inch (in diameter) PVC pipe.
3. Roll with It
When it comes to muscle soreness, deep tissue work can be a lifesaver — but it can also be a budget buster. Save some cash by using your own mobility tools. Using Starrett’s MobilityWOD video series as a guide, try rolling away muscle soreness with the lacrosse balls and foam rollers. This type of self-induced deep tissue massage is known as self-myofascial release. Admittedly, it can be a bit torturous at first, but gritting it out can do wonders for tight muscles by breaking up scar tissue and improving circulation.
4. Try Traction
Having sufficiently rolled the soreness out of your muscles it’s time to turn your attention to the giant rubber resistance band. This stretch band can be used in any number of ways to apply tension or traction to muscles. Start by looping the band around a squat rack or another anchor that’s bolted to the ground. Facing the anchored object, place your hand up and through the open end of the band, palm facing up so the band is resting on your wrist. Lift your arm overhead and slowly pull it away from your anchor, allowing the band to gently open the space between your wrist and shoulder joints. Repeat this move with both arms.
Maximizing mobility doesn’t have to take month or years. Starrett advises clients to check mobility before and after each stretch session to assess effectiveness. If you perform a bodyweight squat before and after a round of self-massage, there should be a noticeable improvement in positioning. This feedback can then be used to address deficiencies “upstream” and “downstream” from the source of pain or tightness.
For more mobility work, check out these 15 stretches you should do every damn day.