Static Stretching Hurts
As a physical therapist, clients/patients frequently ask about stretching. What’s the best way to stretch_________? Should I stretch before/after activity? Is foam rolling, using lacrosse balls, etc the same as stretching? Those are some loaded questions. Early in my physical therapy career, I debated with coworkers about the best way to stretch the hamstrings; seated vs. standing, PT administered vs patient, hold for 15 seconds vs. 90. Back in the day a typical patient with low back pain received a hamstring stretch, piriformis stretch and quadriceps/hip flexor stretch as a home program. Well quite a bit has changed since then. I don’t remember the last time I gave a static hamstring stretch to a client.
I rarely use the word ‘stretch’ any more. I don’t like it, too passive. It implies that mobilizing your muscles at end range is a passive activity, passive for your brain that is.
Clients at Limitless Pilates definitely feel muscles pulling, elongating, moving towards end range, but the verbiage used is mobilize, open, push, in place of stretch. They are actively elongating the muscles. Next blog post in a week or two will address utilizing the eccentric muscle lengthening to improve flexibility. Back to the stretching questions.
What is the best way to improve mobility?
A dynamic stretch isolated to one area can be helpful (for example: standing front/back kicks with knee straight for hamstrings, side to side kick for ITBand). However, isolated movements only hit a one area. Whole body movements such as roll-downs from standing, spine stretch forward, rollover (when appropriate), single straight leg stretch, hip hinge, pike to plank mobilize fascia, joints, and the neural system and yield instant results, when compared to weeks of isolated stretching. Most of the time there is immobility elsewhere in the body that is affecting the area that feels tight.
With dynamic movements you are retraining the proprioceptors (nerves that tell the brain where the body is in space) to learn a new end range without a fight. A static stretch just tugs and pulls, the message to the muscle is to resist that motion, very confusing to the sensitive nerves. Mine failed me or over-corrected a couple weeks ago, read more here about that. For the equestrians, a static stretch sends a confused message to the brain, just like kicking the horse and pulling on the reins at the same time.
As a former vice president of the tight hamstrings club, and current member of the average hamstring flexibility association, I rarely stretch in the traditional sense. My improved flexibility did not take weeks to achieve. I hate static stretching. It hurts. It’s boring. It’s frustrating. I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing anything. Pilates is a great example of dynamic movement through full range of motion of the joints, muscles, fascia, neural system. Added bonus it’s fun, also provides stability in the new range of motion, and there’s that whole abdominal strengthening piece as well.
Should I stretch before activity during warm up?
Research suggests that a static stretch before activity can decrease performance. Static stretching has a negative effect on strength and power, due to decreased sensitivity of the proprioceptors mentioned above. A warm-up before activity is still recommended, but static stretching should not be included in that warm-up. Now a warm-up before gymnastics, dancing, figure skating should involve moving the joints in the range of motion similar to those activities. So these athletes will need to move their joints/muscles in a larger range of motion than when I go running up that giant hill on Forum or the one on Chapel Hill near Countryside preschool. When the average joe goes for a jog, his/her range of motion does not require taking muscles/joints to end range like a gymnast. Short answer: no stretching before activity. Use an activity that gently increases heart rate and gets blood pumping to arms/legs for 3-5 minutes before activity. Walking, skipping, squats, step-ups are great examples. I personally walk for a few minutes before jogging. There is something to be said for foam rolling as a warm-up.
Is foam rolling, using lacrosse balls, etc the same as stretching?
No, foam rolling/rolling on myofascial balls is better. If you’ve followed me on social media or looked at my website or come to a session with me, you already know I’m obsessed with these four inch yellow balls. I use these balls with clients to improve mobility of the joints and fascia. I also use the foam roller quite a bit to loosen up the fascia, joints AND muscles. You can learn more about using small balls and foam rollers in the links below or attend a session/workshop at Limitless Pilates.
If you’re still dead set on keeping a stretching routine because it’s worked for you in the past or you really like stretching, then hold off on the stretching until after activity. Still prefer a dynamic movement to static hold for those stretching routines.