The idea that static stretching is good for us is highly ingrained into our society. Soccer players are from a young age instructed by their coaches to stretch their hamstrings and hip flexors both before and after exercise, fitness instructors incorporate various stretches into the workout programs of their clients and fitness classes, and many gym goers make sure they always finish their workouts with at least 10 minutes of static mobility work.
Is all of this static stretching actually doing us any good?
Ancient systems in a modern world
I worked as a Personal Trainer (PT) and strength coach at a commercial fitness center for many years. During those years, I teached hundreds of people how to squat, correct their posture, and move their body correctly. When I first started out as a PT, I thought I knew a lot about training and fitness and had a good understanding of what to do to optimize my clients’ results. In reality, I didn’t. I probably knew a lot more about training than the average Joe, but I was still a rookie. It took me several years to become good at the job.
During the first couple of years of working in a gym, I spent a lot of time observing how people, in particular my clients, moved their bodies. I had my clients perform various drills and exercises and then looked for sticking points and technical errors that inhibited them from performing the movement with optimal technique. I then went home, turned on the computer, and started doing some research. I was looking for solutions to optimizing the exercise technique and results of my clients. I also did a lot of self-experimentation and frequently lie in bed thinking about the possible physiologic and anatomic explanations for what I had observed in the gym.
This process was not a waste of time. Over time, I discovered patterns, learned a lot, and developed several strategies that I could quickly implement in PT sessions in order to improve my clients’ workout results and lifting technique. One of the things I noticed during the first couple of years of working as a PT is that there’s a lot of overlap in regards to the types of musculoskeletal problems people suffer from and the origins and causes of their problems.
The model I used for designing workout programs evolved, in the sense that different ingredients, including the evolutionary mismatch theory, the strategies I had developed, and the knowledge I had gained over the first couple of years of working as a PT, were incorporated into it. After some time, I felt that I had gotten a very good grasp of how to optimize both my own workouts and that of my clients.
At this point you may be asking: Is all of this relevant to the discussion about static stretching? Yes, I would argue that it is. One of the things that became clear to me over the years I worked as PT at a commercial fitness center is that static stretching rarely lives up to its reputation. There’s no doubt that some people, such as athletes who participate in sports that require a high degree of flexibility, may benefit a lot from static stretching. The average gym goer, however, may be better off spending his time on other activities.
In my experience, most people at the gym don’t perform static stretching because they have seen great results from doing so, but rather because they have heard numerous times that it’s good to stretch. They just do it, because they’ve heard it’s good for them, not because they’ve found that it helps make them healthier or fitter. Many don’t have a purpose or plan with their stretching, they just do a couple of different stretches they’ve observed other people do or seen in a fitness magazine. This is a waste of time. It’s important to have a purpose with what you’re doing.
The evolutionary mismatch model posits that many chronic musculoskeletal problems and postural dysfunctions are caused by a discordance between the human genetic make-up and the modern milieu. The modern man stresses his body in evolutionarily novel ways, something that triggers the development of a dysfunctional musculoskeletal system. We didn’t evolve to sit on a chair in front of a computer 8 hours every day; we evolved to be physically active.
In my experience, tight hamstrings, glute atrophy, faulty movement patterns, muscle imbalances, tight hip flexors, and many of the other issues you have to deal with as a PT all originate from a similar set of causes. Typically, various evolutionary mismatches are at the root of these problems. With this fact in mind, it suddenly becomes much clearer what we have to do to correct the problems.
Static stretching is rarely effective in the treatment of complex musculoskeletal problems
Complex problems rarely have simple and easy solutions, which is something we humans often seem to forget. When we get attacked by a pathogen, we try to wipe out the pathogen with a drug. Instead, we should probably ask ourselves why the pathogen got a chance to attack us in the first place, and then, based on the answer of that question, design a treatment plan that addresses the root causes of the problem.
The same principles apply to fitness. Instead of asking ourselves why a lot of people get tight hip flexors and then go on to design treatments and workouts that address the underlying causes, we prescribe static stretching. At first, this approach may seem logical: if you have tight hip flexors, you need to stretch them. Unfortunately, this simplistic approach is rarely effective. To really make some headway we have to address the root causes. In my experience, tight hip flexors, hamstrings, and pecs are caused by muscular imbalances, such as those present in Lower Crossed Syndrome or Upper Crossed Syndrome.
Let’s take tight hip flexors for example. Poor hip mobility is rarely an isolated problem. Rather, if the hip flexors are tight, then chances are other muscles are in a compromised state as well. Typically, the glutes are weak and the erector spinae is weak. The hamstrings are also usually affected. Together, these abnormalities may set the stage for excessive anterior pelvic tilt, poor posture, a “bulging” abdomen, and lower back pain.
You can’t fix this problem with some static stretching of the hip flexors. Rather, you have to attack the problem from several different angles. A process called reciprocal inhibition is involved in the development of muscle imbalance syndromes such as LCS. When you sit at a chair all day, it’s not just your hip flexors that are shortened; several other muscles are also affected. When the hip flexors shorten, the opposing muscles lengthen. This is reciprocal inhibition.
If you regularly engage in activities that stress your muscles in an “imbalanced way” and/or don’t provide your musculoskeletal system with the stimuli it evolved to need to function properly, tightness, muscle imbalances, and poor posture develop. Together, these things set the stage for faulty movement patterns, back and knee pain, and injuries.
Not all cases of muscle tightness, poor posture, and musculoskeletal pain are caused by a mismatch between physiology and environment, but in my experience, many are. This idea is supported by fossil studies showing that Paleolithic humans were tall and had strong, dense bones, and broad shoulders. Moreover, the aforementioned problems are much less common among hunter-gatherers. Some hunter-gatherers frequently sit in a squat position – a type of static stretching. However, they obviously don’t perform static stretching for isolated muscles.
I think modern humans could highly benefit from doing this type of “squat stretch”. That said, I don’t think performing static stretching is the key to fixing poor posture, LCS, UCS, back pain, and other musculoskeletal-related health problems. Static stretching may aid in the treatment of this condition, but by itself it’s not going to have much of an impact. Rather than doing a lot of static stretching, I’ve found it more fruitful to strengthen the inhibited/weak muscles, typically the glutes and/or rhomboids, doing dynamic mobility drills, and focusing on learning and mastering good exercise technique and the hip hinge pattern.
Basically, you have to reverse the processes that caused the problems in the first place. When you sit a lot, your glutes become weakened and your hip flexors become tight. In the gym you can reverse this trend by doing exercises that target the glutes and other muscles that produce posterior pelvic tilt.
What does the science say?
Before we wrap up, let’s briefly have a look at what the science says about static stretching. In terms of injury prevention, a 2008 systematic review found that routine application of static stretching did not reduce overall injury rates (1). As for its effects on exercise performance, studies have shown that static stretching (particularly longer durations), performed prior to a workout, adversely affects muscle performance (2, 3). In other words, it’s probably much better to warm up with dynamic mobility drills than static stretching.
Most of the studies investigating how static stretching affects flexibility have focused on the hamstring muscle. The results of these studies indicate that static stretching, performed on a regular basis, does increase flexibility (3, 4, 5, 6). The fact that the Range of Motion (ROM) increases doesn’t necessarily mean that an increase in muscle length has occurred though. Many studies on static stretching has found that the increase in ROM that results from static stretching can be attributed to increased stretch tolerance, not increased muscle length (3).
Athletes who participate in sports that require a high degree of flexibility may benefit a lot from static stretching. The average Joe may also benefit from doing certain types of static stretches, such as the “squat stretch”, on a regular basis, as it may improve his flexibility and help prevent the development of muscle imbalance pattern. Static stretching, however, is rarely effective in the treatment of complex musculoskeletal problems.
A lot of people think performing static stretching is the key to treating poor posture and muscle imbalance patterns. It isn’t. Moreover, static stretching, by itself, is rarely sufficient to fix tight hip flexors, pecs, and hamstrings. It may aid in the treatment of these conditions, but by itself, it’s not going to produce a major change in how the body looks and functions. It’s usually a lot more fruitful to focus on resolving the evolutionary mismatches that commonly underlie these conditions, and treating lower crossed syndrome and upper crossed syndrome by strengthening the inhibited/weak muscles, doing dynamic mobility drills, and focusing on learning and mastering good exercise technique.