Does static stretching improve your flexibility?

Welcome to the start of the week and we’ve got a cracker to get the opinions flowing. One of our most read articles ever looked at the plank and it’s ‘effectiveness’ for runners. It created quite a debate, and I know there are still some forum monkeys out there who think the whole thing is utter rubbish, others agreeing whole-heartedly.

Never afraid to stick his head out, Mile 27’s Andy DuBois returns with another cracker, static stretching and whether or not it helps to improve our flexibility…

What is the point of stretching?
Most people’s reasons for stretching fall under three different categories. They stretch because they want to improve their flexibility, reduce or prevent injury or reduce post exercise soreness.

Currently (and as far as I know) there is no research at all that suggests stretching helps reduce post exercise soreness. That leaves us with increasing flexibility and reducing preventing injury.

Will doing this help increase your flexibility>
Will doing this help increase your flexibility?

What do we mean when we say increase our flexibility? The answer will vary for everyone but in general we want to increase our flexibility so we can move more effectively and efficiently. We tend to notice our lack of flexibility when we go to pick something up off the floor or duck under something or twist around to reach for an object. Essentially we want to have more flexibility when we move.

Stretching to prevent injury is probably the number one reason for stretching. Often injuries can be caused a muscle becoming so tight that it starts to strain or tear.Other times a tight muscle can place strain on other muscles overloading them causing an injury. Either way if we can maintain or improve our range of movement when we move we can prevent either scenario from occurring.

Improving active range of movement is the primary motivation for most people to stretch.

What other range of movement is there you might ask?

Active and Passive range of movement

The opposite to active range of movement is passive. Passive range of movement is the range of movement you have when somebody or something is helping you create the movement. For example if you are lying on your back and you use your hands to try to lift one leg up off the ground as much as possible, this is passive range. If you stand on 1 leg a kick your leg up as high as possible this is active range.

Unfortunately the two don’t correspond. Your active range of movement can be far less than your passive range of movement as a study published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 18(4), November 2009 discovered. The study measured the effect that static stretching of the calf had on the range of ankle dorsiflexion during walking. Dorsiflexion is what happens in your ankle when you stretch your calves.

dynamic-stretching-4

The study compared two groups, one that stretched their calves regularly over a three-week period and another did no stretching. At the end of the three-week period the group that stretched their calves had no more dorsiflexion when they walked than the group than the group that didn’t. They did improve their passive range of movement however.

So static stretching has no benefit if we want to improve the range of movement of a joint when we move. Obviously we can only infer from this study that a 3 week calf stretching program has no effect on dynamic flexibility of the calf muscle, it may have been different if they stretched for more than 3 weeks and other muscles may act differently, but if it takes more than 3 weeks to produce ANY improvement in an active joint range of movement then it could take a very long time to see an appreciable difference.

So if static stretching has no effect on active range of movement what does?

You may also be asking yourself why if your passive range of movement increases, doesn’t your active range increase as well?

The answer to the first question is relatively straightforward. Dynamic stretching is not only a far better way to warm up compared with static stretching, it is also a far better way to improve active range of movement.

As to why passive range doesn’t equal active range, it comes down to safety. The body won’t give you an increased range of movement unless it is confident it can control that increased range. In much the same way as the bigger the engine in a car the better the brakes need to be. The body will only give you whatever range of movement it feels it can control without risk of injury. To increase that range we need to give the body the strength to control that additional range. This is why dynamic stretching is so much more effective, dynamic stretches teach the body to both increase the range of movement and give it the strength to control the movement

Is static stretching a waste of time?

There are some situations where static stretching may still be useful. Recovering from injury is one. When muscles tear the body lays down scar tissue to repair the damage. This scar tissue is not laid down in the same direction as the muscle fibres and needs to be gently stretched to realign it with the muscle fibres. Static stretching is good for this but must be followed by a dynamic stretching program before returning to full function.

Feature image credit – Zaggora

Dan
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6 thoughts on “Does static stretching improve your flexibility?

  1. “Currently (and as far as I know) there is no research at all that suggests stretching helps reduce post exercise soreness.”
    Well, we know that elongated muscle what is capable of functioning in full contraction has better blood flow to it, than a strained shrank muscle. So by stretching statically after cool down can help increase the blood flow to the area, therefor bringing in more nutrition, transferring away waste products and aiding recovery by not “constricting” circulation .

    I am a big believer in posture and mobility too. If you have a job, where you can lift, jump, jog, pull and push, rotate your body and do these in different positions with different weights and type of objects, you can have a serious mobility and flexibility, without any stretching.
    If you are on an office conveyor belt, bleeding your eyes out front of a computer, stretching is a good idea, active, active isolated, static…

    Best ever book on the market: Becoming a supple leopard – Kelly Starett
    (He is coming out with his running specific book soon)
    Warthon’s stretch book on stretching with a rope

  2. Your next step – explain active stretching. I suspect what I do is static stretching and I have to tell you since I reinstituded a daily stretching regime I have managed to avoid any further injury problems. I may be slower, but not as slow as if I couldn’t run at all due to injury! May I also point out 3 weeks is meaningless esp. for older runners. I’m seeing improvements now after 1/2 years (I am 59).

  3. Some good points there re mobility without any stretching happening but if you want to argue a point can we please back it up with some kind of research.
    There is no research to show static stretching helps recovery, the idea that holding a position increases blood flow and transfers waste products is not supported in any research I have read. Gentle movement increases blood flow not holding a position statically

    1. the one other good reason, or so I have been told, to do static stretching that’s worth mentioning is to prevent aging-related immobility. I’m under the impression from things I have read that muscles will naturally lose their mobility the older one gets, and that traditional static stretching can help you retain your range of motion. Is this still considered legitimate science?

  4. Like most areas of sports performance there is limitations in research. “Evidence based practice” is always a hard one because the evidence often depends on how much something has been studied rather than if it really works or not. Taking static stretching back to an experiment of just myself (n=1), I am definitely better off if I include regular static stretching in my training routine. I eliminated for about 2 years because the research said it didn’t help (I still included dynamic mobility work) and the result for me is I had never been so tight and unbalanced. This may be more to do with work posture issues but it does carry over into running. The fix has been to incorporate some static stretching again and most of those issues have gone. At this point I’m of the view the research is incomplete.

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