Research on the Physical Benefits of Stretching

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Is there any empirical evidence indicating that there are physical benefits to be derived from stretching? If so, what are the benefits?

Question from marmadaddy:


Is there any empirical evidence indicating that there are physical benefits to be derived from stretching? If so, what are the benefits?

I've tried incorporating stretching at times into my training routine because we're "supposed" to, but I've never felt that I got anything out of it. There's plenty of advice to stretch all over the popular fitness media, e.g. this quote from virtualfitnesstrainer.com:

"Stretches help prevent injuries while training PLUS increase flexibility. How? By making your muscles more flexible by lengthening them." And the "remember to stretch" disclaimer is as common as "consult your physician before starting any exercise program". This strikes me like the "everyone knows you need 8 glasses of water a day" myth. It's well intentioned, everyone "knows" it, but nobody can find the research that proves it. I'm no physiologist, but I just can't see how stretching prevents injuries, and the only time I've felt that my flexibility increased was when my strength increased due to training.

This is a fairly important question as an age group triathlete's training time is at a premium. If it turns out that there aren't any physical benefits to stretching, our time spent could be put to better use drooling over bikes.
 



Answer:

Your concerns are probably justified. Out of fairness to those who do advocate regular stretching as a preventative for exercise-related injury, it is very difficult to structure clinical studies to look at this question without having other variables interfere with the effectiveness of the study to assess what it is supposed to (that stretching does or does not prevent injury). Having said that, there is little evidence that stretching regularly prevents injury, and a large analysis of similar studies done in 2002 concluded that there was no meaningful effect. There is also evidence that strength (and hypothesized also the performance) is actually decreased for up to an hour after a static stretching session.

Stretching to assist in recovery from injury holds more promise, and I still utilize it for rehabilitation in this way, but as to prevention, the truth is that there is just no evidence that it is helpful. Eccentric loading of the muscles in a consistent resistance training program probably assists flexibility as much as anything, as it appears you have already discovered.

 

Lastly, when considering stretching in a beginning athlete taking on new physical movement patterns and muscle effort, or, in a new athlete that is at the Master’s level; recommending stretching is also considered helpful in preparing the muscle tendon unit for exercise - going through the range of motion shortened to lengthened. There is also benefit in the research on stretching to maintain the stretch for greater than 12 seconds can yield a more lasting effect on the elastic component of the soft tissue lengthening fibers. If you are looking for where the research seems to point: no meaningful preventative effect is seen from stretching alone. There are improvement in mechanical motion, lengthening of elastic fibers in tissue that can occur; the relationship to the practical question of how much stretching is less clear. Looks like you have more time to bike shop.

Chad Carlson, MD
Member AMSSM

www.amssm.org
 

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date: April 9, 2005

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The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) was formed in 1991 to fill a void that has existed in sports medicine from its earliest beginnings. The founders most recognized and expert sports medicine specialists realized that while there are several physician organizations which support sports medicine, there has not been a forum specific for primary care non-surgical sports medicine physicians.

FIND A SPORTS MEDICINE DOCTOR

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