I’ve seen post after post and article after article recently with a proclamation. The verdict is in. Stretching doesn’t work. The thing I dislike about these kinds of headlines is that they’re designed to get people’s attention and the information they provide is generally pretty narrow. The real question is, is it true that stretching doesn’t work?
The Problem With “Stretching Doesn’t Work” Headlines
These article boldly declare that stretching doesn’t work. But what does that mean? Does it mean that stretching can’t improve your range of motion? Or that it can’t reduce pain? Or that it’s a complete waste of time? I would say that none of these statements are true when stretching is employed properly.
Stretching can absolutely improve your range of motion. The reason stretching often doesn’t help people is because they don’t stretch often enough and/or long enough. It takes time for the body to notice a need for adaptation. If you spend 10 hours a day sitting and 2 minutes a day stretching your hip flexors, of course your hip flexors are still tight! In your body’s perception, that 2 minutes of stretching isn’t a stimulus that requires attention.
You need to hold a stretch for a minimum of 90 seconds to affect change. Longer is better. It takes a good amount of time for your body’s safety mechanisms to adjust and allow more length in your muscles. The stretch you feel isn’t really a stretch. It’s an involuntary muscle contraction. Your nervous system limits positions it thinks are unsafe. You need to convince it the position is safe.
Once you’ve stretched enough to improve your range of motion, you need to use the new range of motion so your nervous system can learn to incorporate it into regular movement. Some light movement learning to use and stabilize the new range of motion is important. If you ignore this step, your new range of motions will disappear soon after stretching.
Stretching can be an extremely valuable tool for your health and fitness. Check out the work of Katy Bowman to see how effective it can be for restoring normal joint function. The trick is to employ it effectively so that you get the benefits of stretching. Stretching does work when used correctly.