Is stretching overrated?

In yoga, it’s an advantage to have stretchy, elastic muscles. Touching the toes is not enough; yogis strive to clasp behind ankles, with forearms hugging calves and forehead pressed low on shins.

But is such flexibility good for anything else?

In the New York Times‘s Phys Ed column, Gretchen Reynolds wrote an intriguing article, “How Necessary Is Stretching?” on November 25, 2009. She questions the common belief that stretching and maximal flexibility enhance physical fitness. In one study of distance runners, the least flexible (based on a standard sit-and-reach test) athletes showed the most economical running strides and the fastest race times. In other words, being bendy did not help athletic performance (in running, at least).

According to exercise physiologist Malachy McHugh, who was quoted in the piece, flexibility depends both on the muscle anatomy itself and on the mind, which controls a stretch based on perceived discomfort. Apparently, when we increase our stretching capacity, it’s not the muscle itself that’s changing but the mind: we increase our tolerance for the discomfort of a stretch.

McHugh adds that actually changing muscle elasticity would require hours of stretching, over months or years. The conclusion: Most people aren’t willing to do that, and most don’t need to. As long as you can touch your toes in the sit-and-reach test, you’re fine.

Perhaps so. But here’s my take on two points:

Is stretching for flexibility worth the effort?

We all lose flexibility as we age. (Same with strength. And speed. And power.) So it behooves us to preserve it. In my 20s, I met a slim woman in her 40s at the gym. Over the ensuing decade, she continued to swim and work out. While she retained her leanness, however, her posture seemed slightly stooped and her gait, slightly jerky. I could see the trajectory of her aging. In contrast, committed yogis seem to retain their suppleness and smoothness of movement, probably due to their flexibility (and body awareness).

As for hyper-flexibility, I say “why not?” While average flexibility will get us through life, maximal flexibility (short of pain and injury, of course), gives us extra leeway for everyday actions. It’s akin to developing aerobic capacity through wind sprints or any interval training: You might never need to run for your life, but isn’t it nice to climb stairs or romp with your dog without gasping for air?

Does stretching change our muscles or our perception of discomfort?

Probably both. The mental component explains why longtime yogis welcome a degree of “pain” in stretching. I don’t mean dangerous pain, but the delicious pseudo pain of pushing to your max. With higher thresholds for stretching sensations, we can go deeper.

The mental limit is also illustrated by stretching methods such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching. Here, one can stretch a muscle farther (much farther, in some cases) after strongly contracting that muscle. That’s because the contraction initiates a relaxation reflex in the muscle, to protect it from strain. Obviously, the muscle is not changing after a single PNF exercise, but the mind is allowing a deeper stretch.

That said, I believe that muscles can become more elastic with regular, long-term stretching. Commonly tight spots such as shoulders and hamstrings can markedly improve in poses such as sarvangasana and uttanasana. Often, people cannot even approximate a pose at first. The issue is not merely tolerating discomfort in a given pose; rather, tight muscles must be lengthened to a baseline level. The muscle must actually change. Of course, I have no proof.

All I know is that stretching simply feels good. That’s reason enough for me.

Image: tanakawho

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3 thoughts on “Is stretching overrated?

  1. Having ‘longer’, stretched muscles can also help prevent muscle tear injuries. In a sudden forced stretch of a muscle (a fall or other trauma) if the muscle has more give, it’ll simply stretch and bounce back. It may be sore, but recovery will be shorter than someone with short tight muscles that just tears in the muscle or tendon in response to that same stimulus. Ouch.
    Progressive, persistent stretching over long periods of time does change the muscle, too, not just the nervous system. Continued stretching causes the muscle to build more sarcomeres, the contractile units that comprise a muscle.

    1. Stretching doesn’t cause the muscle to build more sarcomeres. I’m not sure if you mean more sarcomeres in parallel ( ie increasing muscle Cross-Sectional Area) , or in series (Ie increasing length of muscles.) Either way, it doesn’t do either. The only thing that will increase the sarcomeres is resistance training, where the load stresses the muscle cell to hypertrophy. You cannot change the length of a muscle, it attaches at certain fixed bony landmarks- to imply you can lengthen it is to imply we can pick up an insertion and move it. It has been tried actually, but not many of us would be willing to have our bones broken in half, fixed apart for six months, immobilised in a cast, just to stimulate an increase muscle length.

      Nevertheless, I agree with the author, it’s just cool to be able to do.

  2. I saw this article, too…my response was, “I guess.” It seems like a no-brainer to me that keeping limber (enough), moving blood through the muscle tissue and synovial fluid through the joints would be key to stay physically functional. Plus, it’s so easy–no equipment necessary. With a bit of rigor, you can even get the post-workout flush of positive feeling. It probably all depends on the stretcher–those predisposed to it benefit, those who aren’t don’t.

    My anecdotal evidence is my classes, the majority of whom are over 45 yr.s old and everyone who has stuck with me for a year or two is in better flexibility shape than when they started. What does that say?!?

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