By Chere Lucett
To stretch or not to stretch? There is no question. The answer is yes, you should! Flexibility (often called “stretching”) provides innumerable benefits from increasing range of motion, preventing injury, increasing strength (yes, increasing strength—I’ll explain in a moment) to improving performance. Let’s talk about the four big benefits of improving your flexibility.
Benefit #1: You’ll Be Bendier
One benefit of flexibility is increasing range of motion around your joints. Limited range of motion can lead to pain, injury and poor overall performance. The soft tissues that surround the joint determine joint movement. If muscles become shortened due to overuse or underuse, this can alter the way joints move. Limited range of motion around joints affects how you move, decreasing your ability to use your full muscular potential, but also exposing you to a higher risk of injury. According to several studies, self-myofascial release, static stretching (holding the end range of a stretch for a prolonged period of time) and PNF stretching (a form of static stretching that uses reciprocal inhibition—contracting one muscle to reduce the neural activity to its opposing muscle) were all shown to increase range of motion (Bandy 1994, Decicco 2005, Sady 1982, Schuback 2004, Sullivan 2013). But to increase length, you need to spend some time. The quick “touch your toes and go” method of stretching isn’t what helps increase range of motion. To get more length in a muscle, you’ve got to hold that stretch longer than two "Mississippi's." A landmark study done in 1994 showed that the duration of holding a stretch was important in increasing range of motion. This study showed a prolonged stretch (over 30 seconds), over a period of time (the study required six weeks of adherence) resulted in increased range of motion at a joint (Bandy 1994). In addition, researchers showed that longer durations of foam rolling (a form of self-myofascial release) provided for greater increases in range of motion (Sullivan 2013).
Benefit #2: You’ll Get Hurt Less
When addressing the concept of flexibility and injury, you have to look at the body as a whole chain of connected parts that intertwine to provide movement. It’s called the Kinetic Chain and it’s an important concept to understand. If we remember the old kindergarten song, “The knee bone’s connected to the foot bone…” that kind of tells the story. Muscle imbalances (muscles around a joint that or tight while other muscles around the same joint are weak) affect the way joints move. If one joint isn’t moving optimally due to muscular imbalances, our bodies don’t simply shut down to keep us from moving altogether. Instead, the body elects other joints and muscles to pick up the slack and enable the person to perform the movement they are required to perform. In other words, it compensates for the limitations that exist in other parts of the body, which can lead to injury. For example, let’s say someone injures an ankle and is not able to use the ankle the same way they once did. Well, you still need to walk, but you change your movement pattern to compensate for the limitations of the injured ankle. The next thing you know, your knee starts hurting, or your lower back begins to hurt. These changes in movement patterns lead to stresses in other parts of the body, which can lead to other injuries. Limited joint motion due to inflexibility can act the same way. Over time, this abnormal stress on the body leads to wear and tear and eventually the body begins to breakdown (Woo 1987, Zairns 1982). Incorporating flexibility into your daily program can help reset the muscle lengths and provide the optimal mechanics at the joints. That is a key component to preventing injury.
Benefit #3: You’ll Increase Strength
This benefit might be argued about for the rest of time, but I want to point to my last benefit for support. For a muscle to recruit the muscle fibers optimally, it must have the appropriate length/tension relationship. This means the muscle must be at its ideal length—not too long and not too short. If an exerciser suffers from muscle imbalances due to overuse or constant shortening or lengthening, those imbalances will not only limit range of motion at a joint, they will also limit the extent that muscle can be recruited. It’s the way the body helps protect itself from injury (Milner-Brown 2001). So incorporating flexibility techniques to improve muscle imbalances can improve the muscles length/tension relationship, allowing it to generate force more effectively and, in essence, increase strength capabilities. I can already hear you saying, “But I heard that static stretching before strength training shouldn’t be done because it decreases strength!” Let’s keep in mind that the goal is in my statement above is static stretching to improve muscle imbalances that can lead to strength improvements, not maximal strength improvements. Much of the research done on static stretching and strength assesses its effect on maximal muscle strength, in which case, static stretching can decrease maximal strength output (Gergley 2013). However, how many people are performing static stretches and then getting on the gym floor and performing one-repetition maximums immediately after? Not many. So unless you are a high level athlete that is requiring maximal levels of strength and power during their workout, performing static stretching as a warm-up prior to a general, submaximal strength training routine will not be detrimental in improving muscle strength and may even improve movement quality when training.
Benefit #4: You Will Perform Better
From pro athletes to desk jockeys, flexibility is an equal-opportunity performance enhancer. A great performance requires the ability to generate speed, and force quickly within changing environments and with varying levels of control and intensity. Without proper flexibility, athletes won’t exhibit optimal motor control or the capacity to recruit muscle fibers maximally. Both are required for reactive activities that are dominant in sports, like explosive sprinting, cutting, agility, and change of direction (Vander 2001). The more balanced the body, the better the body will perform.
While there are several benefits of improving your flexibility like better postural control and decreased stress, when it comes to your exercise routine, flexibility is often overlooked and underperformed. However, it could be the key ingredient to better overall results.
Bandy, W.D., & Irion, J.M. (1994). The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Physical Therapy 74(9), 845-52.
Decicco, P.V., & Fisher, M.M. (2005). The effects of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on shoulder range of motion in overhand athletes. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 45, 183-187.
Gergley, J.C. (2013). Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(4), 973-977.
Milner-Brown, A. (2001). Neuromuscular physiology. Thousand Oaks, CA: National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Sady, S.P., Wortman, M., & Blanke, D. (1982). Flexibility training: Ballistic, static or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation? Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 63, 261-263.
Schuback, B., Hooper, J., & Salisbury, L. (2004). A comparison of a self-stretch incorporating proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation components and a therapist-applied PNF-techniques on hamstring flexibility. Physiotherapy, 90, 151-157.
Sullivan, K.M., Silvey, D.B., Button, D.C., & Behm, D.G. (2013). Roller-massager application to the hamstrings increases sit-and-reach range of motion within five to ten seconds without performance impairments. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, . 8(3),228-236.
Vander, A., Sherman, J., & Luciano, D. (2001). Human physiology: The mechanisms of body function (8th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
Woo, SLY., & Buckwalter, J.A. (1987). Injury and repair of the musculotendinous soft tissues. Park Ridge, IL: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
Ziarns, B. (1982). Soft tissue injury and repair – biomechanical aspects. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 3,9-11.