What’s so great about Stretching, Anyway?

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

Cody Leeworthy, DPT

As a Physical Therapist, I’m often asked about stretching by my patients.  “Why should I stretch?  When should I stretch?  How often should I stretch?”  We all know how fantastic a good stretch feels, especially when rising from bed or from a day of sitting at our desks.  Common sense tells us it’s probably a good idea to stay flexible and limber.  We see our dogs and cats stretch multiple times a day. Most athletes, amateur and professional swear by it and are taught to stretch before and after every performance. But is there really any evidence that stretching is ALL THAT when it comes to our musculoskeletal health?

The answer is…maybe.  There are studies that show stretching has little to no consequence on the body before or after exercise.  Other research indicated that athletes performed more poorly during sports after stretching and that stretching did nothing to relieve post-workout soreness. Stretching will not keep you from injury nor will it prevent musculoskeletal conditions that are caused by overuse.  With all of that “enthusiasm”, based on scholarly investigation, why does any Physical Therapist recommend stretching?

Here’s what we do know.  Stretching increases blood flow to muscles, which certainly can’t hurt when it comes to performance.  It’s also been proven to improve flexibility and range of motion for joints.  Better flexibility and range of motion MAY consequently provide the following:  better performance and decreased risk of injury.  As a Physical Therapist, I often treat patients who need better flexibility and increased range of motion, especially after musculoskeletal injury or surgery, so stretching makes sense for these folks, when used appropriately. 

Stretching is like any other activity – doing it correctly may be of help, but doing it incorrectly can have negative consequences.  If you are going to stretch, here are some basic rules to follow:

  1. Stretch areas of your body that need more flexibility.  You should attempt to have equal flexibility on both sides of your body to minimize the chance of injury.
  2. Stretch smoothly and don’t bounce.
  3. Hold your stretch for no more than 15-30 seconds. 
  4. Remember to breathe deeply while stretching.
  5. Don’t use pain as an indicator of a “good stretch”.
  6. Stretch major muscle groups on either side of the body, i.e., right leg and left leg, right shoulder and left shoulder.
  7. Stretching should never be used in place of an appropriate warm-up for the exercise/activity you plan to do.

I’m going to close this article with a joke – If yoga had originated in the United States, instead of India, what would it be called?  Stretching.