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Does Stretching Actually Benefit Us?
The idea that we should stretch our muscles before and after physical activity is widely considered the done thing. We stretch to avoid and recover from injuries, to improve our performance and flexibility and to reduce muscle soreness. But is stretching as beneficial as we believe?
Lots of research has gone into answering this question, but often the studies conducted involve few participants, meaning they become unreliable when comparing them to the general public. However, in 2016, Behm et al. added 19 studies to an already expansive systematic review. They found 119 performance measures where stretching had significantly worsened performance; 145 measures where the impact was unclear; and only 6 where performance had significantly improved post stretching.
Another recent study was conducted for 3 months on 1398 runners at a University. Half of the runners were instructed to stretch before their run and half were told not to. They found that the raw injury rates for both groups were identical, proving that stretching does not reduce the risk of injury.
However, there are also studies that have found static stretching to be beneficial. One study instructed participants with hamstring tightness to perform 10 minutes of static stretching with the help of a pulley or weights machine. They found that there was a significant difference in hamstring flexibility between the stretch group and the control group (Ahmed, Iqbal, Anwer and Alghadir, 2015).
A 2021 study assessed the effects of high-volume static stretching on gastrocnemius muscle size and strength. They asked 26 young female volleyball players to stretch one leg for a total of 9 minutes a day for 5 days a week, increasing to a total stretch time of 15 minutes a day over 12 weeks. They found the stretched calf’s range of movement had increased by 22% and the calf thickness had increased by 23%. This demonstrates how stretching may induce similar muscle adaptations as resistance training. However, it does not clarify if the same results could be achieved in less time and intensity from resistance training.
Overall, the literature around stretching is very inconsistent and a clear answer is hard to find. When performing warm ups and cool downs for physical activity, dynamic stretches appear to be more beneficial, as you move through the range required from your joints during exercise. This does not mean to say that static stretching should be completely forgotten about. There does appear to be an effect on muscle hypertrophy (size) and strength, post static stretching. Plus, the most effective way of reducing a muscle cramp is by performing a static stretch.
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