To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

Many Clients I see, particularly those involved in sport, are often tight and complain no matter what they do their calf just doesn’t seem to release or that hamstring muscle has “always been tight”.  Many report they stretch or may use the torturous foam roller to help. Both forms can help but only for a short time but as soon as they resume activity the tightness returns.  So this begs the question is there any benefit to stretching and should we still do it?

Like many areas of musculoskeletal medicine there is a lack of strong evidence to support the effect of stretching for either injury prevention or performance enhancement. Recent research has suggested that many cases of muscle tightness is actually muscle weakness. This sometimes (but not always) coincides what I see in the clinic during testing. Weaker muscles on testing also show more restriction than their counterpart.

However, I believe stretching can be useful as part of a maintenance programme to ensure we maintain the flexibility we have. Secondly, my advice would be if you feel better and it it eases symptoms, even just for a short period and you enjoy it I would stick with it. From my own personal experience I do stretch and over the years have found that my mobility has improved but I mostly stretch as it makes me feel more comfortable after a heavy training session.


What Kind of Stretching Should I do?

There are many forms of stretching but two of the most common stretching that most are familiar with are static and dynamic stretching.

Static Stretching:

Most people are familiar with this type of stretching  (see below), where you take the muscle or joint you want to stretch into a lengthened position and hold it there for 30 seconds or more. There is a body of evidence suggesting that traditional static stretching used immediately before training or sport reduces strength and muscle power and therefore it may have a detrimental effect on performance and potentially  injury risk.

Bearing in mind the above evidence it would be most beneficial to do this type of stretching after exercise or training. However, if there is a specific stretch that you like to perform before activity and feel better for it then I would continue to use it, it is unlikely to cause harm unless you are doing very powerful intense training such as heavy lifting or sprinting.

Dynamic Stretching:

This stretching mimics the motions you go through during the activity. If it is running you might do some leg swings, calf bounces or lunges or if you take part in a sport that requires change of direction you might includes some twisting motions. The idea of dynamic stretching is that it takes the joints and body through the required range required for your sport.

Dynamic stretching before sport does not seem to have a detrimental affect on performance or pose an injury risk, but it is still not clear whether it can prevent injury or enhance performance.

In this video I give a few examples of some dynamic exercises to use before running. I would probably spend about a minimum of 5 minutes doing these before going out for a steady run.

Key Messages:

1.Before sport or activity you are better to perform a more dynamic routine of stretches that is specific to your sport.

2. After sport if you find it beneficial to stretch, hold the preferred stretch for 30 seconds. There are hundreds of different ways to stretch and we are all individuals so what works for one may not work for you. If in doubt as your physiotherapist.

3. If you are continually stretching but finding it of no benefit think about why you are tight. It may be that you need to strengthen up the muscle. If in doubt have a chat to your physiotherapist.

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