Recovery Part 2: Recovery Modalities

Stretching, yoga, pilates
“Should I stretch more?”  We get this question from clients at Paragon frequently, and in many cases it seems to stem from the client dealing with some combination of the following categories:

  1. Soft tissue injury: various strains, sprains, aches and pains are common reasons people will seek out the “best stretch for [insert muscle group].”
  2. A sensation of “tightness” or “restriction” that is either new to the individual, has become problematic for too long of a time period, or has recently flared up.  *Note: I put those sensations in quotation marks because these terms can mean different things to different people and you may have a different way to describe this feeling.
  3. The desire to prevent injury prior to activity.
  4. The desire to achieve a certain position requiring a greater degree of motion than what the person is currently able to achieve, or to be able to move into various positions with less effort.  This could be anything from a deeper squat at the gym to the ability to reach into a high cabinet without strain.

Certainly there are other reasons someone may want to stretch, but when it comes to the conversations had with our clients at Paragon, the 4 buckets above represent a large majority of the reasons cited. 

Claims about stretching

I won’t name any brands specifically here, but suffice to say there are companies out there who will sell you on the benefits of stretching, or even having someone else stretch you (facepalm) regardless of the evidence available.  Let’s break down these claims:

Claim #1: “Stretching improves sports performance.” False, probably.

Long duration static stretching, where you hold a stretched position for >90 seconds, likely isn’t best performed immediately prior to explosive or high force activities such as jumping or very heavy lifting, as this has been consistently shown to reduce performance in such activities. Rather than holding a stretched position for an extended period of time, you should begin your workouts with a full body dynamic warm-up, where you are taking each major joint through the ranges of motion which will be required during the workout to follow.  At Paragon, this often looks like Shoulder CARs, walking lunges, and a ramp protocol on a cyclic cardiovascular modality such as a bike.

Claim #2: “Increased range of motion and flexibility.” True, but…

If you’ve heard of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand), this should not be surprising.  If you stretch a certain thing in a certain way over and over again for a long period of time, your body will eventually accept and feel comfortable in this position and will allow for an increased range of motion. However, this is extremely context dependent.  The “S” in the SAID principle is “specific”. Stretching one muscle group in one particular direction does improve that muscle groups’ excursion in that particular scenario, but it may or may not translate to any other scenario.  Let’s use a real world example here:

Stand up with your feet touching together.  Keeping your knees straight, bend over and touch your toes.

Approximately half of you reading right now will find this effortless and you won’t feel much restriction. Everyone else felt varying levels of restriction and/or tightness in their hamstrings and calves, if they were able to reach their toes at all.  If you fall into the second camp here, it’s natural to assume that you feel restricted here due to “tight hamstrings,” therefore, you need to stretch your hamstrings more.  Oftentimes the protocol looks something like the picture below, where we lie on our back and passively stretch our hamstrings using a doorway, band, or partner  to get into a stretched position:

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Typically you’d continue to perform this static stretch on a regular basis, holding the position for anywhere from 20 seconds to several minutes.  Yes, this protocol will eventually allow you to get deeper and deeper into the doorway over time.  However, if we re-check your toe touch prior to you stretching, can we expect any significant improvement?  Who knows? Flexibility is entirely context-dependent and we didn’t address why your toe touch was limited in the first place.  As soon as you get on your feet and have to manage your body’s center of mass relative to gravity, things change significantly and a passive stretching protocol like you’ll find at your local partner-assisted stretch location does nothing to address the reason your range of motion was limited to begin with.  Your body doesn’t limit range of motion or create a sensation of tightness without a reason.

Claim #3: “Stretching improves posture and reduces stress.”  False, and maybe, but has nothing to do with posture. Claims like this exist when companies try to oversell the mechanisms of stretching or a service:

“Proper alignment and balance through stretching helps improve overall posture and allows you to stand taller…Stretching benefits both your physical well-being and your mental health, as it allows the blood and oxygen to flow better, improving mental clarity.”

Welcome to the land of big promises and a complete lack of evidence.  Any of these points may be worthy of its own blog post, but suffice to say that there is no evidence that stretching would be a better or worse intervention than any other form of physical activity for the benefits listed above.  We know that resting posture is a very poor predictor of pain so trying to change it is unlikely to result in decreased pain.  Setting this aside, we also know that changing somebody’s resting posture is not likely to occur through stretching or exercise intervention anyhow.  Stretching may help improve blood flow and stress levels, just not for the reasons that are most currently cited in marketing claims such as the above.

Can stretching be useful? 

Up until now, this may sound like an anti-stretching article and I can assure you that is not the case.  Stretching can be extremely beneficial, just not for the reasons most people would list as benefits of stretching.  Why should you consider stretching?

  1. Improve relaxation- gentle stretching has been shown to decrease sympathetic tone and stress levels.
  2. Improve post-workout recovery- stretching provides a low level of mechanical stress similar to easy-paced walking which can promote improved blood flow.  This has been shown to reduce post-workout soreness.
  3. Improve muscle growth- One of the most important areas of research in the past 10-15 years in the fitness industry has been examining the benefits of training a muscle in its lengthened position as it relates to muscle growth.  Every muscle that’s been studied to date seems to benefit from lengthened-position training. We actually have a few studies looking at the impact of stretching vs. not stretching between sets of strength exercises, with at least some data to suggest that even low-load mechanical stress such as a static stretch can help amplify the hypertrophic effect.

Final thoughts on stretching:

  • Used post-workout, stretching can be a viable tool to help improve relaxation and blood flow.
  • Stretching or training the muscle in a stretched position is a potent stimulus for muscle growth.
  • Relying on stretching to drastically change range of motion or performance is not a bet I’m willing to make.

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