The Ubiquitous Stretch
If you ask Dr Google for advice on how to recover from a musculoskeletal injury, you will find page after page of advice on stretching, articles about stretching, videos demonstrating stretching and exercise sheets detailing various stretches for your particular issue. Most people stretch because they believe it will help prevent injury or because they think it will make their muscles feel less sore after exercise. If you go to an exercise class at a gym, stretching is often included as part of the warm-up and the cool-down routine.
Despite such widespread use, it may surprise you to hear that there is hardly any scientifically verified benefits to stretching. The scientific data suggests that stretching has little benefit and for the prevention of injuries and muscle pain it is not effective at all.
What is the Alternative?
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a specific form of muscle loading is a far more effective alternative, a practice known as ‘eccentric loading’. Eccentric loading occurs when a force lengthens a muscle-tendon system while it is being contracted. So for a hamstring exercise, you could lie down and use an elasticated exercise band to raise the leg while you gently resist. This has the effect of taking the hamstrings through their range of movement under gentle load rather than simply stretching them – this would be more effective than the traditional hamstring stretch that is normally done standing up. Eccentric loading exercises have been proven to improve flexibility, strength, performance and injury reduction.
What about back pain?
When we think about back pain, the natural assumption is to think that the muscles in the back are contracted and need to be stretched. But that is not strictly the case. The muscles in the back are incredibly strong and back pain is not caused by these muscles contracting, it is caused when these strong muscles become stiff and less flexible.
When something has become stiff and less flexible, stretching is not the answer. The answer is to down regulate the stiffness through small, controlled movements. With that in mind, the most important thing to do for our backs when it comes to exercise is to warm up and cool down appropriately with gentle, controlled movements to encourage the stiffness to soften and to encourage blood supply into the stiff muscles, and put far less emphasis on stretching.