Why Stretching Research Fails
The New York Times should know better than to publish articles that distort issues surrounding health, wellness and exercise. These subjects are complex enough without misleading headlines, which was precisely the case when The Times published a piece entitled, Reasons Not To Stretch, a review of two new research studies on its Well Blog. The problem is the actual name of one of the studies was, “Acute Effect of Passive Static Stretching on Lower-body Strength in Moderately Trained Men.” By the time The New York Times was done with it however, their message to the world was, “Don’t bother stretching. It doesn't do a bit of good.”
It’s true that the research around health, wellness, stretching, exercise and other aspects of physical well-being is constantly evolving, along with our understanding of that research. But no matter what, The Times article failed to mention the many benefits that accompany being more flexible, like feeling more relaxed, reducing stress on the body’s systems, having more freedom to move, sleeping better, enjoying the way your body feels, improving your sex life and connecting with your body to gain physical and emotional balance.
Plus, the study itself used highly selective criteria, which The Times completely failed to mention. Namely, how static stretching pre-workout effected leg strength. And the workout in question? Squats and only squats.
But let’s say the workout was having to do kicks, Rockette-style. Stretching beforehand would likely result in higher and straighter kicks, an undeniable requirement for that job. Here, there is a direct correlation between stretch, flexibility and performance. With squats, there is not.
As a proponent of stretching, I’ve said many times that static stretching doesn’t work if one does not know how to use his or her body in the process, which I suspect was the case with the young male subjects in the study. What was worse though, was the assumption that stretching should increase strength in the short term. Stretching is not strengthening. It’s stretching. And yes, it will release and relax the muscles, (that's kind of the whole point) affecting the power they have in the moment. But the overall effect of stretching upon the conditioning of our bodies can’t be denied. You don’t stretch to gain strength. You stretch to contribute to the overall conditioning of your body and keep the muscles supple, healthy, and in a state of balance with strength.
Would you lift a bunch of weights right before trying to do a split? Or touch your toes? Of course not. One has nothing to do with other. What this study really tells us is, “If you are a young man between 18 and 24 and want to do weight bearing squats, then by all means, stretch after, or some other time, just not right before.” Where did people get the idea that you should stretch to be stronger anyway? You should stretch to be more flexible and strengthen your muscles to be stronger.
This discrepancy is one of the biggest problems with the current research on stretching. It not only overlooks the very reasons why we should stretch but ultimately, the measurements themselves have weaknesses. Until that fundamental flaw is addressed, no study is ever going to be able to accurately show the full and realized benefits of stretching, or lack thereof.
To make matters worse, we have articles such as The Times piece that reflect a severe bias in how the research is interpreted, which just goes to show how little the industry understands flexibility. This is the bias that we at Lastics hope to confront in order to slowly begin changing the conversation.
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