Static Stretching is Overrated


Jan 18, 2023
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We’ve all done it – we feel “tight,” figure our muscles are short and need to be stretched, and then flop down on the ground for a 10-15 minute bout of static stretching that supposedly resolves 99% of our movement and pain related problems.

But did static stretching really help?

Did we actually relieve muscular stiffness?

Did the changes we made (if any) last longer than 15 minutes before we felt like we needed to stretch all over again?

I don’t know about you, but I answered “no” to every single one of these questions.

This doesn’t mean I’m anti-stretching, I’m far from it, and I do believe that static stretching provides benefits to those that actually need it. But not everyone needs to static stretch, and for the vast majority of people that stretch on a regular basis, I think they’re just wasting their time.

Stretching Doesn’t Lengthen Our Muscles

Often when I ask someone why they stretch, the answer I’m given is “to increase muscle length.” While this sounds good in theory, static stretching – in no way, shape, or form – will actually lengthen a muscle (at least in the way most people think), and a good way to think about this is to view your muscles as if they were a rubber band.

What happens when you pull on the ends of a rubber band?

It stretches out and get longer. But the stretch is directly correlated with the amount of pulling force acting on it. When that force is gone, the band’s elastic property snaps it right back to its original resting length, and our muscles operate in a similar fashion.

If you have a muscle that’s functionally short, sure, stretching will help to return the muscle back to its original resting length. But, it won’t lengthen it any further, as doing so requires permanent alterations to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsule that allow you to access a new and UNNATURAL range of motion (ROM). If you compete in a sport that requires crazy levels of flexibility – think gymnastics and martial arts – this isn’t necessarily a problem. For the other 99% of the population, I think it would cause more harm than good.

But wait a second, if stretching doesn’t improve muscle length, then why can I touch my toes after repeatedly stretching my hamstrings?

It’s probably because you increased your stretch tolerance, or ability to handle the discomfort caused by stretching. Not many people – in my experience anyway – present with functionally short muscles. Their inability to stretch stems from the fact that once a stretch is initiated, the discomfort triggers a response from the nervous system that forces the muscle to contract (shorten).

Overtime, static stretching will improve your stretch tolerance, making it easier for you to stretch to full range without restriction. This is definitely beneficial, important to your overall health and performance, but once your stretch tolerance is at a normal level, any additional stretching (beyond what’s needed to maintain that stretch tolerance – not much) is really just pointless.

The “Unstretchables”

I ran across this article by Paul Ingraham of awhile back (the full article can be read HERE), and I thought it was pretty interesting.

Paul states that there are certain muscles and muscle groups that can’t be stretched due to biomechanical limitations, and many of them are the muscles we spend the most time stretching.

Take the IT band for example. We’re constantly told that a lot of our knee problems are a result of a “tight” or “angry” IT band, and that stretching it is the “almighty” cure. But the IT band is a piece of connective tissue – not muscle – that’s stronger than steel. It seems pretty unlikely that we’d be able to make mechanical change to our IT bands by simply crossing our feet and touching our toes.

And hey, what about the quadriceps?

The quads (the muscles that make up the front of your thigh) are comprised of four muscles: vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris.

Only one of these muscles is bi-articulate (crosses two joints) – the rectus femoris – and that’s the muscle you feel go on tension when you do a classic quadriceps stretch.

The rec fem makes up a whopping 10% of your total quadriceps bulk. The vastis – the other 90% – don’t even begin to moderately stretch until you reach max knee flexion, at which point your hamstrings prevent you from going any further.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “unstretchables,” I highly suggest reading Paul’s article. I just wanted to provide a few examples illustrating the fact that there are certain muscles that – no matter how hard we try – simply can’t be stretched.

Not All Stiffness is “Bad,” and Even If It Was, Stretching Wouldn’t Help

We automatically assume that being stiff or tight is a bad thing, but our muscles are controlled by the nervous system. If a muscle is in a constant state of contraction (stiff, tight, etc.), it’s probably for a reason.

Let’s look at the low back, hips, and knees. Your knees and low back are meant to be stable, and your hips are meant to be mobile.

What happens if – because of inactivity, a lack of mobility work, poor movement – your hips become stiff and tight?

Your back and knees lose stability in order to pick up for the mobility that the hips are lacking, enabling you to – theoretically – move around normally and without pain.

But your back and knees aren’t designed for this extra motion, so what happens to the muscles acting on these joints?

They get stiff and tight in order to protect the joint from injury.

Static stretching won’t relieve the stiffness because it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Sure, it may provide temporary relief, but without creating stability in the areas that are meant to be stable, while simultaneously creating mobility in the areas that are meant to be mobile (think strength training and mobility drills), the problem will never truly go away.

*If you want to read more on the topic, I highly suggest you check out the works of Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Gray Cook, Dr. Stu Mcgill, and Mike Reinold.

Summing Up

Like I said before, I’m not anti-stretching. I just think that for the goals that most people are looking to achieve – strength gain, muscle gain, improved performance, physique development, improved mobility, moving and feeling better on a daily basis – static stretching isn’t the answer.

This doesn’t mean you should never static stretch. I stretch for a few minutes before bed 2-3 times per week.

It just means that static stretching is a small piece in a much larger puzzle.

If stretching relaxes you and you enjoy it, stretch as much as you like. Just realize that it’s not doing much for you from a movement and performance standpoint, and you’d probably be much better off focusing on strength training, conditioning work, mobility drills, and simply moving more on a daily basis.