Does Stretching Help?  Answer: Yes, And No.

August 4, 2020 | Fitness

Dev Mishra, M.D.

President, Sideline Sports Doc

Medical Director, Apeiron Life

Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

August 4, 2020


Key Points:

  • In large published scientific studies, stretching has not reduced injury rates in sport and fitness activities
  • Stretching is effective in other ways, such as improving joint range of motion, overall flexibility, and improving post-activity recovery

Last week I wrote about increased risk for knee injuries with poor form on squats and lunges, and unaccustomed plyometrics. The fact is that increasing strength is a critical component of injury risk reduction, it’s just that you have to do it correctly.

This week let’s look at another controversial topic. Does stretching help? Between increasing strength, improving balance, and increasing flexibility is one better than another? It turns out that the most effective way to reduce injury risk is through increased strength, followed by improved balance.

Surprisingly, stretching to improve flexibility has not been shown to reduce injury risk. It doesn’t seem to be harmful so do it if you enjoy it or if you feel it improves your sport and fitness performance.

Can Stretching Prevent Injuries?

The most surprising finding from several published scientific studies is that stretching does not reduce injury risk. This seems to be true for dynamic stretching and static stretching.

In a large systematic review and meta-analysis, Lauersen and colleagues found that strength training reduced acute injury risk across multiple injury types by about 70% and overuse injuries by about 50%. Balance (proprioception) exercises were also very effective, reducing injury risk by about 35%. Stretching and flexibility had no effect.

More recently, Knapik and colleagues studied the effect of calf stretching on injury rates in high school basketball players. They found that the stretching programs improved ankle flexibility but had no effect on injury rates compared to a group not on any stretching program.

Is Stretching Helpful In Other Ways?

There’s no doubt that many types of stretching programs can be effective ways to improve joint motion and flexibility. From a functional standpoint I feel that’s a very good thing. Some sports require substantial ranges of motion to function well, such as dance and gymnastics. In throwing sports we know that an internal rotation deficit in the shoulder is a risk for upper extremity injury, and increasing internal rotation improves throwing mechanics. A golfer would do well to maximize trunk rotation.

There’s good evidence that post-activity flexibility exercises combined with massage, foam roller, or other tissue mobilization techniques reduces soreness and speeds recovery.

Additionally, most people just feel better being more flexible compared to being stiff. Yoga, combining flexibility with mindfulness and stability is an activity millions of people enjoy.

There are plenty of reasons we should use stretching and flexibility exercises as part of our regular fitness practice, but surprisingly we shouldn’t expect them to reduce injury rates.

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