Stretching is often utilised in sports and exercise warm ups, as well as rehabilitation settings to improve performance and recover from injury. While current research and literature doesn’t provide enough evidence to support stretching as a means to prevent injuries, stretching is very effective in increasing joint range of motion (ROM), and injury recovery.
What Happens When We Stretch?
Muscle fibres are lengthened, and a stretch sensation is detected by receptors in the muscle known as “muscle spindles.” This stretch sensation can range from feeling like a mild discomfort, to a more intense and painful sensation - depending on a number of factors. The ability to increase range of motion through stretching can be attributed to either an increase in total muscle length (increased extensibility), or to an increased tolerance to the stretching sensation.
Types of Stretches
Three different types of stretching are proven to be effective in improving joint range of motion, flexibility, and muscle extensibility…
The most common form of stretching, and involves increasing the length of a muscle until a stretch sensation is felt. That point of stretch is then held anywhere from 20-60 seconds. Static stretching can be done actively (by oneself), or passively (with a partner).
Involves actively moving a joint through its entire range of motion rhythmically and repeatedly.
Involves nearly maximally working the target muscle, with a static stretch immediately afterwards. The muscle being used during the technique should be contracted at 75 - 100% of its maximal capability. Pre-contraction techniques include…
Hold-Relax - The muscle holds a contraction, which is followed by a passive and/or assisted stretch of the muscle.
Contract-Relax - The muscle contracts through it’s range of motion, and is then passively stretched.
Contract-Relax Agonist Contract - The target muscle holds its contraction, and the following stretch is accomplished by contracting the OPPOSITE muscle.
When Should I Stretch?
Prior to Exercise
Static stretching should NOT be done as part of a warm-up. Research shows that static stretching of a muscle before physical activity (especially running or jumping) significantly WORSENS performance. Instead, dynamic stretching has been shown to have the opposite effect, with increases in power and performance frequently documented.
Static stretching does have its place in athletics, but specifically when the sport or activity requires the participant to be very flexible (gymnastics, dance, etc).
Static stretching during the early phases of rehab helps to align collagen in healing muscle, and prevent loss of motion due to scar tissue growth.
For Pain Management
A long term stretching routine has been shown to help improve discomfort and pain for those dealing with chronic pain in as little as 3 weeks. In the short-term, pre-contraction stretching has been shown to produce a 94% reduction in pain associated with trigger points.
How Long Should I Stretch For?
It is recommended that people complete a stretching routine after having already gone through an active warm up, at least 2-3 days per week. Each stretch should be held for 15-30 seconds, and repeated 2-4 times. For older adults, longer durations are recommended - approximately 60 seconds per stretch.
How Intense Should I Stretch?
For the most part, there seems to be little to no difference in benefits between stretching to discomfort, or stretching until painful. However, in a rehab setting, more intensive static stretching has been reported to heal a hamstring strain better than dynamic or less-intense stretching. Meaning that more intense stretching may be beneficial when dealing with an acute injury.
Book an appointment with any of our qualified providers to find out more about how you can use stretching to help improve your pain, your flexibility, or return to activity after an injury!
Law, R., Harvey, L., Nicholas, M.K. et al. (2009). Stretch exercises increase tolerance to stretch in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain: a randomized controlled trial. Physical Therapy, 89(10), 1016–1026.
Muanjai, P., Jones, D.A., Mickevicius, M. et al. (2017). The acute benefits and risks of passive stretching to the point of pain. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 117(1), 1217–1226.
Page P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 109–119.