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Most people, especially athletes and frequent exercisers, share a common pre-exercise ritual: stretching. Although it has been done without question for decades, first at the bequest of coaches and trainers and then simply from habit or for additional benefits, the actual benefits of stretching are now being questioned. Much focus has been placed on the differing effects of stretching when it is done before, after, or even during exercise. Some are even citing it as a danger to athletes and exercisers alike.
Why Do People Stretch?
The benefits of stretching are believed by the masses to be varied and extensive. Upon being asked just what these benefits were, most of my friends responded that it lessens post-exercise soreness, provides protection from injury during exercise, and makes exercise easier and more effective. Many easily accessible websites make these same claims. One titled “Health and Fitness” claims that stretching is a way to reverse the “neck cricks and muscle cramps” that are the body’s “response to exercise,” that it helps everything from ordinary activities to competitive athletics, and that it “prevent aches and pains and promotes the health of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments.” (Health and Fitness)
Many studies are currently being done to disprove these pervasive myths. Different Studies have focused on different supposed benefits and different times that stretching is done. More or less, they come to the conclusion that stretching does not deliver all the promised benefits. However, studies do conflict on what benefits stretching does provide, the extent to which they are noticed, and if it is actually harmful to stretch before exercise. In fact, these studies have provided so much new information that conflicts with what was previously considered to be common knowledge that even popular magazines have begun to address the changing ideas about stretching.
Specific Subjects Addressed
Stretching Before Exercise vs. Stretching After Exercise
While some studies being done either show or do not rule out the possibility that stretching after exercise might have a positive effect on the prevention of injury especially and occasionally the lessening of post exercise muscle soreness as well, most recent studies agree in concluding that stretching before exercise is not an effective way to relieve post exercise muscle pain or prevent injury during exercise. However, there are still studies that back up the old stretching myths. For example, a study done by Woods, Bishop, and Jones at the Human Performance Library at the University of Alabama showed that stretching was beneficial. However, this study placed a greater emphasis on defining stretching and including it as a part of a warm up routine; it claims that differing definitions of what stretching is and the lack of including it in an overall warm up routine is the reason other studies have found different results. This study also addresses flexibility as a part of well-being and physical fitness, which is not addressed in other studies.
The Effect of Stretching on Injury Prevention and Muscle Soreness
Robert Herbert and Michael Gabriel, senior lecturer and physiotherapist at the University of Sydney conducted a study “to determine the effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness after exercise, risk of injury, and athletic performance.” Five studies were summarized in their report, which all seemed to conclude that the reductions in muscle soreness were ‘small and statistically non-significant.” Two of the studies were on army recruits; they showed that the reductions in injury risk were also negligible. The study reported that neither stretching before nor stretching after exercise prevented muscle soreness, and that stretching before exercise did not reduce the likeliness of injury; no statements were made on the effects of stretching after exercising on injury prevention or reduction. (Herbert, Gabriel, 2002)
The best study on the effect of injury reduction after stretching was conducted with military recruits over a 12-week initial training period. The recruits completed workouts every other day over the training period, with the experimental group stretching before exercising. An injury was defined as something that made the recruit “unable to return to full duties within three days.” 14.09% of the stretching group sustained injury over this period, while 14.85% of the non-stretching group sustained injury. This percentage does not differ by nearly enough to validate the myth that stretching prevents muscle injury. It can be concluded that stretching has no effect on the likelihood of muscle injury during exercise. (Griffith 2002)
In a review of studies in Montreal, Quebec five reasons are offered as to why exercise does not prevent injury. First is that increased muscle compliance causes tissues to tear more easily in animals. Secondly, stretching will not affect activities that require excessive muscle length. I also won’t affect compliance of muscles during erratic activity, which is thought to be one of the main causes of muscle tears. Fourthly, damage can be sustained at the cytoskeleton level due to stretching. Finally, stretching itself causes tiny tears in muscles; this pain triggers a release of endorphins to mask the pain. These endorphins can easily overcompensate, which is why stretching is frequently a pleasant experience. (Shrier 1999)
The Effect of Stretching on Athletic Performance
While claims are made both that stretching increases athletic performance and that stretching actually makes it harder for athletes to give a peak performance, there is not scientific material to back up either of these theories
Could Stretching Be Harmful?
In a review of studies on the subject of stretching to reduce the possibility of injury, it was concluded at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Community Studies a the SMBD-Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, Quebec that stretching is not beneficial in this respect. However, it was also noted that three of nine studies examined showed that stretching was actually detrimental to the exerciser. For example, one study claimed that when the muscle fibers were elongated due to stretching they became more prone to tears and pulls as they were less able to bounce back quickly. This is especially true when stretching is done before exercise. (Shrier 1999)
While most new information about the truth behind stretching is still found only in scientific journals, some of the new information has even made its way into mainstream news sources like the popular weekly news magazine, U.S. News. The article in question addresses mostly the possibly harmful elements of stretching; of course, such can be expected from a publication whose survival depends more on less educated readership and selling magazines based on cover stories. The magazine claims that stretching could be particularly harmful for women, who are more prone to soft tissue injuries. The supposed reason for this is that women are more flexible, a condition that is only intensified by stretching. The article states that stretching is much more likely to cause injury if done directly before exercising. (Sohn 2004)
More reputable news sources also approach this topic. The Western Journal of Medicine claims that the assumption that a less compliant muscle is less easily injured is a myth. In fact, “compliance due to temperature, immobilization, or fatigue is associated with a decreased ability to absorb energy. It also found that injuries usually occur within the normal range of motion and points out that if injuries occur within the normal range of motion, there can really be no need to increase that range by stretching, at least not for the purpose of preventing injury. (Shrier 2001)
Are there benefits?
While no benefits have been proven in scientific studies, stretching should not be completely eradicated. Perhaps exercisers and athletes need to change the time or situation in which they stretch, instead of completely ceasing to stretch. This topic has only been under debate for a short period of time; as it becomes more widely acknowledged that the supposed benefits of stretching are not real, more studies will be done and more than likely it will be proven that there are some benefits of stretching. Among these could be a sense of well-being and relaxation, or perhaps mental clarity or some similar benefit.
Griffith, MD, R. W. (2002, September 27). Is Stretching Out of Date? Health and Age. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from http://www.healthandage.com/html/articles/19****.html
Health & Fitness. Learn To Stretch Before Exercising. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from http://www.tutorials.com/05/0503/0503.asp
Herbert, R. D. & Gabriel, M. (August 31, 2002). Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. British Medical Journal, 325(468), 62-73.
Shrier, I. (1999). Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature Vol. 4. (9th ed.). Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine.
Shrier, I. (April 2001). Should people stretch before exercise? Western Journal of Medicine, 174(4), 282-283.
Sohn, E. (2004). No Bending or Twisting. U.S. News $ World Report. Retrieved January 30, 2008, from http://health.usnews.com/usnews/health/articles/040621/21ligament.htm
Woods, K., Bishop, P. & Jones, E. (2007). Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Sports Medicine, 37(12), 1089-1099.
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