Myth – stretching before exercising prevents injuries

As a Physical Therapist, I get a lot of questions about stretching. It’s crazy! “Oh! You’re a PT – nice. So hey, what stretch should I do if my back hurts?” “What stretches should I do at the gym?” “Should I be foam rolling?” “What’s the best exercise for my upper back?”

 

You get the idea. With majors in Exercise Science and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, I do enjoy answering questions. Learning is fun. Teaching is fun. Keeping people healthy is fun!

 

So to stay healthy, one common question is, “Should I stretch before I go for a run or work out?” Essentially the question is:

 

Does stretching prevent injury?

If I had 5 seconds to answer, it’d be a brief “NO.” But I’ll take a few more minutes to explain WHY for the curious in the crowd.

 

By the way, the type of stretching I’m talking about is “STATIC” stretching, meaning holding a stretch for 15 seconds or more. See the pic above for an example.  Static stretching the quads before sprinting won’t prevent a quad strain. Stretching the groin/adductors won’t prevent a groin strain.

 

Mobility has its place. It’s really a big deal, and I will elaborate more in a bit. But spending time STRETCHING before a work out has not been shown to reduce injury.

 

Why not?

 

First, let’s talk about the concept of LOAD. When we run, jump, land, twist or pivot, we are LOADING our tissues.

 

Picture a person running. Then picture their foot hitting the ground in slow-mo. You can just imagine the force of the BODY as it contacts the ground, and the force of the GROUND as it contacts the foot. This is what I mean by load. Bones, ligaments, tendons, and discs are getting loaded, or “pounded on” with every step or landing.  If our muscles do not have enough stored energy to absorb the load of landing 5,000 times during a 30 minute jog, we’re at increased risk of injury. If our quads, calves, and glute muscles do not have enough trained capacity to absorb the load of landing from a jump, we will eventually get injured. Starting to make sense? The more load our bodies have to handle, the more muscle capacity we need to prevent injury. Stretching doesn’t improve muscle capacity; strengthening does.

 

Therefore, injury prevention is achieved through actively improving our body’s CAPACITY to handle LOAD. When we focus more on neuro-muscular strength and coordination, endurance, and motor (body) control, and less on stretching, we’re well on our way to preventing all sorts of injuries.

 

I certainly hate to oversimplify and be redundant, but just to make a point, consider these common issues and how research suggests to prevent or treat:

Achilles tendonitis – strengthen calf
Patellar tendonitis – strengthen quad
Hamstring strain – strengthen hamstring
Shin splits – strengthen the shin and calf
IT band syndrome – strengthen glutes
Hip Bursitis – strengthen glutes

 

There are really fancy physiological reasons on WHY strengthening works as it does (microscopic mechanical adaptation of the tendons and muscles) but that’s too much for now…

 

Lastly, to be clear, keeping our bodies MOBILE has far reaching benefits. As PTs, we argue that NOT MOVING well is a major cause of degenerative joint disease/osteoarthritis. We’re all for keeping our joints and myofascia (muscles-fascia) moving well. Every time we move a joint through its full range of motion, we nourish the articular cartilage, improve it’s blood supply, protein, and lubricating qualities. It’s super neat what happens when we move well. This blog post was just meant to pick on static stretching, and make sure we’re not hoping it will do something it has never been proven to do.

 

Alright, I’m going to land the plane and leave you with some take-home advice. (It’s a PT thing to give advice, since everybody is asking all the time anyways.)

1) Have a *good* Physical Therapist assess you. I have no clue what the best exercises are for you unless I evaluate you. Honestly. It will do you a world of good.
2) Consider spending more time strengthening to help with pain or injury prevention rather than stretching.
3) Replace static stretching with active repetitive movements to stiff areas.
4) If you don’t know what #2 and #3 mean, refer back to #1!

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