By John Voelz, Doctor of Physical Therapy
Is stretching your muscles important to do before you exercise? The short answer is ……not really.
If this is surprising to you, it is probably because we have been conditioned to “warm up and stretch prior to any activity or we’ll pull a muscle.” Or maybe: “stretching increases the blood flow to your muscles.” Or “stretching before exercise will prevent muscle soreness.” None of these is true. Much of the recent exercise and physical therapy research has shown that there is really no significant benefit to stretching prior to performing routine and moderate activities. But there are certain benefits to stretching in very specific ways, and I’ll talk about them in a minute.
The Aug. 31, 2012 issue of the British Medical Journal reports: “Contrary to popular thinking, stretching before or after exercise does not prevent muscle soreness or muscle injury, according to a systematic review of controlled trials.”
Athletes stretch. Dancers stretch. Karate enthusiasts stretch. In these examples, stretching of certain muscle groups is important for two reasons:
- body motions performed in these activities are typically rapid
- often these activities force limbs and joints to move to extents outside the normal range of motion
Performing rapid, ballistic movements through a wide ROM can cause muscular, tendon, and ligament damage if the athlete does not properly warm up and stretch the muscles surrounding the joints. So these athletes spend a lot of time stretching and increasing the range of movement, making them generally more flexible. Often, and sometimes to their detriment, their joints become too flexible, or “hypermobile.”
But most of us aren’t sprinters, dancers, or karate experts. Most of us perform moderate exercise such as walking, biking, swimming, etc. These activities usually don’t stress our muscle tissue or joints in ways that would cause damage. While stretching prior to activity will probably do no harm, the benefits for most of us are overestimated.
Still, aging often results in substantial loss of muscle, tendon and joint flexibility (due to disuse), but also because these tissues become more fibrous and less elastic. This may limit performance of some activities, but more commonly, it results in limited joint motion as well as low back pain, tendonitis/bursitis, and plantar fasciitis. Sitting frequently and for long periods of time results in tight hip and knee muscles. This can lead to poor (stooped) posture which causes even more problems.
Poor posture can make low back muscles short and tight, which is a major cause of low back pain.
Muscles that become short and tight due to prolonged positions (such as sitting) can negatively affect the adjacent joints and muscles, and can even affect joints and other tissues that are found at a distance. Remember, when it comes to muscle and other connective tissue in the body……everything is connected.
So, in my opinion, a big stretching routine before activity is not that important. It is more important to keep certain regions of the body flexible in order to avoid range of motion limitations that may lead to painful musculoskeletal conditions.
Preventing Low Back Pain:
Two simple stretches can decrease your chance of developing low back pain. One involves a sustained stretch of the low back muscles, and the other is a stretch involving the hamstring muscle group, found in back of the thigh.
Check out these videos for detailed instruction:
Preventing Poor Shoulder Posture and Rotator Cuff Problems:
Have you ever noticed someone whose shoulders “slouch” forward? Part of the problem is a result of tight chest and shoulder muscles. Prolonged “shoulder forward” posture is a direct contributor to rotator cuff pathology. A simple stretch for chest and shoulder muscles is seen in the picture below. Place your forearms against a door frame and gently lean forward. You’ll feel a stretch in the front of your shoulders.
Watch this video for proper pectoral/shoulder stretching to improve posture and
for prevention of shoulder problems
Preventing Plantar Fasciitis or Achilles Tendonitis:
Some of you may have suffered from plantar fasciitis, a painful condition involving the bottom of the foot. Plantar fasciitis can come about if calf muscles (lower leg) are chronically tight.
Here is a video of a physician demonstrating great stretching techniques for the calf and foot:
There are quite a few myths about the benefits of stretching. That being said…… there is definitely a time and place for effective stretching and range of motion exercises, particularly if you are experiencing joint limitations that prevent normal movement. If you have any questions or concerns about joint limitations, range of motion, and ways to improve your flexibility, please call or stop in.
Take Home Messages
- Perform these stretches regularly to prevent future problems
- Hold each stretch 10 to 20 seconds
- The stretch should be held at the point of mild discomfort
- Perform 2 or 3 sets of each stretch
- Pay attention to motion limitations and check with a physical therapist for other hints