Demystifying Stretching: The Truth Behind Stretch Work in Physical Therapy

Exploring common myths and facts about stretching, including the potential drawbacks of static stretching before exercise.

Published: July 8th, 2023 | By: Tom Newby | Read Time: 3 mins


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Being a physical therapist can sometimes feel a bit like being a teacher. We provide education about muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues. We also set “homework”, that is, a routine of stretches, exercises, or other activities designed to improve things. However, as any current (or former!) school-goer will be only too aware, homework doesn’t always get done. In fact, it often never gets done. Sadly, as it is currently against MMC policy to administer detentions, and, as we all have busy lives, jobs, and families, this is the world we’ll have to live with! So, I wanted to take a moment to shed light on a topic that often generates confusion and misinformation: stretch work. There are several myths surrounding stretching techniques and their role in physical therapy, so it’s essential to separate fact from fiction.

Myth 1: Stretching should always be done before exercise. While traditional beliefs suggest that pre-exercise stretching prevents injuries, recent research challenges this notion. Static, elongated stretching before intense physical activity may actually hinder performance and increase the risk of injury. Instead, dynamic warm-up exercises, like light jogging or active movements, prepare the body for action and improve flexibility. That said, there is also some research that a bit of gentle, dynamic stretching ahead of exercise can warm up our soft tissues and ready them for action.

Myth 2: Stretching will cure muscle soreness. Although stretching can provide temporary relief for muscle soreness, it is not a magical cure. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) occurs after intense exercise and is a natural part of the recovery process. Gentle stretching may help alleviate some discomfort, but proper rest, hydration, and nutrition play crucial roles in the recovery process.

Myth 3: Painful stretching is necessary for progress. Feeling pain during stretching is not a sign of progress or effectiveness. Stretching should be performed within a comfortable range of motion. Pushing beyond your limits can lead to tissue damage and hinder recovery. Gradual, progressive stretching with proper technique yields better results over time.

Myth 4: Stretching makes muscles longer. The idea that stretching physically lengthens muscles is a common misconception. Instead, stretching improves muscle flexibility and the range of motion around a joint. It helps muscles and tendons adapt to lengthening and contracting, enhancing overall mobility and reducing the risk of injury. Scientifically, stretching primarily influences the neural factors that control muscle tone and perceived flexibility rather than physically elongating the muscles.

Furthermore, research suggests that an effective stretch should be held for a minimum of 30 seconds. This duration allows the muscle fibres to relax and adapt to the lengthened position. Holding stretches for shorter durations may not provide the same benefits. However, it’s important to note that individual differences and specific conditions may require adjustments in stretch duration. Consulting with a physical therapist can help determine the most appropriate duration for your specific needs.

In conclusion, incorporating stretching into your physical therapy routine requires an understanding of the facts. Dynamic warm-ups, listening to your body’s limits, and focusing on proper technique are key principles to follow. Remember, stretching is just one aspect of a comprehensive rehabilitation program.

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