We've all been told that stretching is good for us. We should do it to prevent injury, warm up, cool down, do it when we wake up and before we go to bed. But is this expectation unnecessary? Is expecting this of yourself doing nothing but making you feel as though you're failing to do yet another task that we are supposed to do? Is it even beneficial?
There is large body of evidence suggesting the benefits of dynamic style stretching and how it is linked to performance in explosive performance such as countermovement jump height and sprint performance. There is plenty of subjective research explaining how static stretching can significantly reduce DOMs. It is not my aim here, however, to get all sciencey on you. In this instance, I just want to give you my opinion...
Is stretching a waste of time?
Yes, but no... erm... maybe
For me, stretching in its various forms does a very good job of improving one's perception of flexibility. Hold a static hip flexor stretch for 60 seconds and you'll certainly feel 'looser'. Test your mobility, perform a stretch, then re-test and you'll no doubt see an immediate improvement! But for me I just think these benefits are extremely short term. Jump back in your car once you've finished your workout and you'll take the slippery spiral back down to your original posture of Neanderthal man.
The feeling of 'tightness' or loss of flexibility does not come from your muscles shortening in length despite popular belief. Muscle shortening comes as a result of evolution. That shit takes thousands of years. Your muscles are not going to shorten significantly enough for you to lose near all range of motion of your shoulder joint. Poor mobility arrises due to weakness. Weak muscle means weak joint, and therefore other muscles that are neural efficient have to take the responsibility of stabilising the joint where inefficient ones can't.
Stretching muscles, therefore, will not improve your mobility long term.
What you need, is to strengthen your weaknesses. This is important. Very important in fact.
If your hip flexors are extremely tight, so tight in fact they're causing you back pain, then you'll need to work on the development of your hamstrings, glutes, abdominals and upper back musculature.
If your shoulders are tight, you'll need to work on your back and posterior shoulder strength. More specifically, the lower fibres of the trapezius, rhomboids, supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor and subscapularis.
What's more, you'll need to train these muscles using a variety of different movements through full range of motion. No half reps here, Harry.
Personally, I don't stretch any more. Well, sort of. My stretching is done with a bar overhead. I find that snatching, cleaning, jerking, squatting with good form means that I don't have to devote hours of my week towards stretching. Why? Well because the demands of those exercises themselves mean that I'm stretching tissues to their full range but whilst significantly loading them.
I think that's the important part. Load. Your nervous system adapts to load. Your tissue adapts to stress and being 'out of its comfort zone'. Developing the weight you can overhead squat with good form will certainly do more for your mobility that any stretch will.
So does that mean I don't prescribe any stretches for the clients of Cheshire Barbell. Not at all! In fact they stretch every session... but its the aims and purposes behind that stretch that's important. Stretching, for me, is a useful preparatory tool. If you're about to perform a movement that demands a significant amount of mobility then it is worth preparing the body for that. These drills will come in the form of basic bodyweight movements and progress into exercise specific drills with a barbell. I make clients aware that these will not improve long term flexibility but in fact help them feel more comfortable doing the exercises that will! Pictured is an example of a drill I use to help my lifters become more comfortable overhead or maintain a good rack position. Here, they position themselves with their elbows on a bench and force their head through their arms until they achieve fill shoulder flexion. Once in this position, they perform a bicep curl whilst keeping the elbows on the bench, bring the bar to the back of their neck. This drill helps reduce tension in the lats, teres major and the long head of the triceps. Common areas that are 'over-active' and prevent a lifter from holding a decent front squat / clean receive position. This drill is extremely useful, it works, but I make the client aware that it is only going to make them feel more comfortable. It will be the cleans or front squats themselves that allow for long term improvements.
So... next time you're in the gym, spend less time arsing around on the mats, and more time in rack perfecting your squat, sott's press and overhead position and use the time you save to prep your food for the following day! No excuses!