My previous article “How Much Should You Lift?” tried to offer some clarity on how heavy of weights you need to lift in order to actually accomplish the goals of building muscle and getting stronger. The inspiration for that article was that a lot of people have been mislead (or otherwise have a misunderstanding) of how heavy their weights need to be in order to build muscle and get stronger – and the answer is usually the weights need to be heavier than they expected. On a similar note, a lot of people get confused about how much stretching they should do, and this article will help give a little guidance in that area.
For the sake of simplicity I’ll use the term “stretching” interchangeably with “mobility work” or “mobility training” for the purposes of this piece, since that is a more commonly used term in spite of being less specific.
First things first: ask WHY are you stretching? What are you hoping to accomplish with it? Some good reasons to stretch:
- The act of doing it feels good – nothing wrong with that
- Certain stretches help alleviate chronic aches that you have (you find this to be true based on personal experience)
- You are trying to retain or improve your range of motion for certain activities (lifting weights, athletics, and so on)
The first two bullet points above are hard to argue with, so I don’t think much discussion is needed there. The third one though, I think is where diving in a bit more can be helpful.
Closely tied to the third bullet point above is the idea that “more range of motion is better” and possibly even “more stretching will help reduce injuries.” I would say “not so fast” to both of those, and I’ll get to them a little later.
Let’s start with athletic performance. Think about your activity of choice – it could be lifting weights, Jiu Jitsu, golf, tennis, rock climbing, running, or something else – regardless of what it is, most activities have predictable motions / actions / positions that you’ll see a lot. What you should do is make a mental image of “textbook perfect” versions of those positions, identify what positions your muscles and joints are in, and then add a little extra range of motion to them. Once you factor in that “little extra” that then becomes a pretty good indicator of how much mobility you need for optimal performance (mobility is the ability to control and use that range of motion effectively, not simply the ability to get into it). Anything beyond that “little extra” is hard to justify from a performance standpoint.
Once you have done that, circle back to how you currently move and compare it to the criteria you just created. Do you already possess enough range of motion to get into each of those positions, plus the little extra? If so, then you probably don’t really need much stretching (from a standpoint of performance in that activity). On the other hand, are there positions that you do not possess the “little extra” for, or possibly not even the minimum to get into the correct position yet? In that case, you absolutely will benefit from doing more stretching / mobility work – you’ll almost certainly be able to perform better in your activities, and arguably you’ll be safer when doing them because the improved mobility will likely result in fewer compensations from your body.
Next, let’s look at it from a general health standpoint. Every person should ideally be able to have joints that are capable of performing basic tasks through a full range of motion without feeling like it is a strain. For example, enough shoulder mobility to put things up on a tall shelf, and enough lower back and leg mobility to be able to lace up your shoes without it being an ordeal. Even if those things are no big deal for you now, the reality is that “use it or lose it” is a real thing. So, it is wise to do at least a small amount of maintenance work when it comes to stretching if for no other reason than to be able to continue to do those tasks effortlessly as you age. This “maintenance work” does not need to take a lot of time or energy; something in the ballpark of 5-10 minutes of easy movement daily will usually do the trick.
Finally, let’s look at the idea that stretching reduces risk or occurrence of injuries. This is a big topic and is not possible to tackle in just a paragraph, so I’ll keep this brief and high level in the spirit of brevity. As noted above, if your sport requires certain motions / positions that you are not mobile enough to do, then YES you’d better get to stretching for sure. If you already are mobile enough, then more stretching might actually be counter-productive – this is particularly true to the crowd who really likes to stretch and tends to do quite a lot of it. The issue you can run into here is that if you develop a lot of flexibility without also having strength / control over that flexibility it can actually INCREASE occurrence of injuries. In the industry we call this “passive range-of-motion” compared to “active range-of-motion” … basically the ratio of what positions you can get into compared to what portion of that you can actually control. Generally speaking a tighter ratio is more desirable, and a wider gap between passive and active has a higher correlation with injuries (presumably because getting into positions you cannot control is more dangerous than not getting into the position to begin with).
In summary, just like it would be naïve to say that every single person needs to be able to lift the same amount of weight, it is also naïve to say that every single person needs to be equally flexible. Someone who is naturally muscular and strong probably needs less strength training than someone who is not naturally that way (of course we still encourage you do to it either way!). Someone who is naturally flexible probably needs less stretching than someone who is more prone to being tight and bound up. The point is that you need to individualize your stretching to YOU based on your specific goals and needs – and at the very least everyone should be doing at least a little “maintenance work” to keep their joints healthy as they age.