Debunking Stretching Hype Debunked

How poor selection of scientific data and the gross misinterpretation of that data has lead to many false statements about stretching.

by Brad Walker | First Published September 3, 2019
There’s one article that I’ve received more email, more Facebook comments and more inquires about than any other.

People are always throwing this article in my face, telling me that it proves stretching has no value. The article in question is titled Quite a Stretch: Stretching Hype Debunked, by Paul Ingraham.

For years I’ve politely explained my position and my beliefs about how stretching and flexibility training helps people of all ages and from all walks of life. But recently I’ve been challenged to “put my money where my mouth is” and address the claims made in the article.

The following is a logical, left brain, analytical assessment of the statements made within the article, and I’ll do my best to keep emotion out of my writing and simply focus on the facts at hand. If however, you feel I have “over-stepped the mark” in any of my comments below I invite you to contact me via the link above and point out where you feel I have erred.

Full Confession: I have a vested interest in stretching; both professionally and financially. And I am biased towards stretching. My bias comes from over 30 years working in the health and fitness industry as a sports coach, a personal trainer, and an educator, and seeing firsthand how stretching and flexibility training has helped tens of thousands of people.

An overview of the article below

Let me start off by saying that Paul’s article is very well written and I can see how someone with little or no experience in flexibility training would be convinced by the arguments made within the article.

He has done a very good job of segmenting his article into sections, each addressing a particular claim or “accepted thought” about stretching.

What I have tried to do below is take each of those segments; give my interpretation of what Paul is saying and then address the issue raised in that segment.

As stated above, if you feel I have “over-stepped the mark” or misinterpreted what Paul is saying I invite you to contact me via the link above and point out where you feel I have erred.

Opening statements

In Paul’s opening statement he claims… “I stretch almost every day — hamstrings, lumbar erector spinae, and especially the deep gluteals are my favourites — but I don’t believe the habit is doing much more for me than a daily back scratch. I am just as stiff and inflexible and full of “knots” as I have ever been.”

I find it odd that someone who feels stretching is of no value other than improved flexibility and “it feels good” would stretch almost every day and then be surprised that it’s not working for him.

Paul goes on to give some anecdotal evidence from a writer at Runner’s World Magazine and two of his readers that either tried stretching, or knew of others that tried stretching, and had a negative experience.

Not taking anything away from the experience these people had, but the fact that someone tried something and it didn’t work is not evidence that it doesn’t work or is of no value. I can just as easily find anecdotal evidence of people who tried stretching and had a positive experience; just have a read through my testimonials page.

The unstretchables

Paul makes the claim that some muscles are unstretchable due to the anatomy of the surrounding structures.

He certainly has a point here, as some muscles are much harder to stretch than others. And while I agree that there are anatomical limitations with some stretches, I don’t believe they are to the extent that Paul describes.

  • The quadriceps for example, is one of Paul’s unstretchables. He rightly points out that the vastus lateralis/intermedius/medialis (3 of the 4 quad muscles) are difficult to stretch because they only cross the knee joint (as opposed to rectus femoris, which crosses both the knee joint and the hip joint). When the knee is flexed to about 120˚or when the calf hits the hamstrings no more stretch can be applied. But what about the person who can barely get their knee flexion to 90˚or less? From my experience this person can certainly elongate their vastus lateralis/intermedius/medialis enough to generate a satisfying subjective sensation of firm stretch (Paul’s words).
  • Another example on Paul’s list of unstretchables is the tibialis anterior (the muscle at the front of your shin). From my experience the two stretches below are extremely effective at stretching tibialis anterior.
Standing Tibialis Anterior Stretch

Front Cross-over Shin Stretch: Stand upright and place the top of your toes on the ground in front of your other foot. Slowly bend your other knee to force your ankle to the ground.

Kneeling Tibialis Anterior Stretch

Double Kneeling Shin Stretch: Sit with your knees and feet flat on the ground. Sit back on your ankles and keep your knees together. Place your hands next to your knees and slowly lean backwards while raising your knees off the ground.

Beware the “Science”

Don’t get me wrong… I’m all for good quality scientific research, however there are two issues I struggle with.

  1. With the explosion of so-called research popping up every where on the internet, you can find “scientific research” to support just about any theory, idea or bent you happen to have. Take for example the current diet debate; I can find research to support a high fat diet, a high protein diet and a high carbohydrate diet. I can also find research to support a low fat diet, a low protein diet and a low carbohydrate diet. So who do you believe?
  2. Finding good quality scientific research among the plethora of rubbish out there is extremely difficult. (I’ll go into more detail about this later when I review a number of the scientific articles mentioned in Paul’s article). And I’m not the only one saying this. Greg Nuckols, in his article, When To Trust Research Findings, begins by saying…
“Many published studies reach incorrect conclusions. By one famous estimation, most published research findings are false, and in projects designed to directly replicate landmark studies, replication rates of positive findings are often below 50%.”
As I stated before, I’m all for good quality scientific research, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Just because something appears in a journal or is written by 14 people all with initials after their names doesn’t mean it’s true or even true for you.

Types of stretching (not just static)

In this section Paul claims that “there is no clear evidence that any method of stretching is a clear winner for any important therapeutic goal.” And that “It (PNF stretching) doesn’t increase flexibility any more than static stretching.” He references the following article to prove his claims. (Azevedo, DC. Melo, RM. Alves Corrêa, RV. Chalmers, G. 2011. Uninvolved versus target muscle contraction during contract: relax proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching. Phys Ther Sport. 12(3):117–21.)

  • I wasn’t able to locate the full article, so I only have the abstract to go off, and unfortunately the abstract doesn’t go into detail on the types of stretching used, other than to say “The Contract-Relax group (CR) performed a traditional hamstring CR stretch, the Modified Contract-Relax group (MCR) performed hamstring CR stretching using contraction of an uninvolved muscle distant from the target muscle, and the Control group (CG) did not stretch.” Without being able to review the precise protocols and methods used it is difficult to determine how the different stretching types were applied, which can make a big difference to the outcomes achieved.
  • From my personal experience I have found PNF stretching to be a far superior form of stretching for improving flexibility and range of motion (ROM).
  • And finally, I’ve found plenty of research to support my belief that PNF stretching does improve flexibility more than other types of stretching.
Miyahara, Y. Naito, H. Ogura, Y. Katamoto, S. Aoki, J. (2013) Effects of Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching and Static Stretching on Maximal Voluntary Contraction. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(1):195–201.

“Results of this study demonstrated that the increase in ROM is significantly greater after PNF stretching than after static stretching for hamstring muscles.”

Sharman, MJ. et al. (2006) Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching : mechanisms and clinical implications. Sports Medicine, 36(11):929-39.

“PNF stretching is positioned in the literature as the most effective stretching technique when the aim is to increase ROM, particularly in respect to short-term changes in ROM. With due consideration of the heterogeneity across the applied PNF stretching research, a summary of the findings suggests that an ‘active’ PNF stretching technique achieves the greatest gains in ROM, e.g. utilising a shortening contraction of the opposing muscle to place the target muscle on stretch, followed by a static contraction of the target muscle.”

Etnyre, B. et al. (1988) Chronic and Acute Flexibility of Men and Women Using Three Different Stretching Techniques. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Volume 59, Issue 3, Pages 222-228

“It was concluded that the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) techniques (i.e., CR and CRAC) were more effective than the static stretching (SS) method for increasing ROM for both hip flexion and shoulder extension for both sexes.”

Another claim made by Paul in this section is “If an exercise doesn’t involve elongating muscles to the point of feeling significant tension for several seconds at least, it’s not stretching.”

Respectfully, I disagree. Dynamic stretching uses a swinging or bouncing movement to extend range of motion (ROM) and flexibility. This type of stretching mimics many actions on the sports field and is very important for warming up and preparing an individual for sports performance. The stretch, or tension is only felt for an instant, but none the less the target muscle group and other soft tissues are stretched.

The same can be said for Active Isolated Stretching (AIS). The stretch is only held for 1 to 2 seconds, but make no mistake, a stretch is achieved.

There is no “truth” about stretching

In this section Paul makes reference to three studies (below) that conclude that stretching before exercise does not reduce injury.

After reviewing the studies above I believe they all make the same mistake. Each study uses acute static stretching immediately before exercise, which is the equivalent of doing a set of push-ups before playing tennis and expecting the push-ups to prevent a tennis injury.

So in effect, I actually agree with these studies. Doing acute static stretching immediately before exercise will not prevent injury (or improve performance), but that’s not how you use stretching to prevent injury. I’ll cover this topic in a lot more detail later on but for now…

The above studies prove that doing acute static stretching immediately before exercise will not prevent injury. In other words; doing a very specific type of stretching in a very specific way, immediately before exercise will not prevent injury. They DO NOT prove that doing another type of stretching in a different way will have the same result. And they certainly don’t prove that stretching has no value.

Stretching research clearly shows that stretching is not an effective warmup

On this point, I agree with Paul. Stretching is not a warm up. But that’s where my agreement ends. Although stretching by itself is not an effective warm up, it is a crucial PART of a warm up.

To make his point and prove that stretching is not required as part of a warm up, Paul references “One of the most-studied warmup regimens, FIFA’s The 11+ programme” and makes the claim that it “does not include stretching.”

However, when I checked “The 11+” program, this is what I found…

Structure of the 11+ warm up routine

Please go and check for yourself at the official FIFA 11+ website. It clearly states that active stretching is included as part of the warm up procedure. For more information about how to warm up properly and how to use stretching effectively as part of a warm up, have a read of my article; How to Warm Up Properly.

Stretching research shows that it does not prevent exercise soreness

Again, on this point, I agree with Paul. Stretching by itself does very little, if anything to reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). And numerous studies have confirmed this.

What I have found from being a nationally ranked athlete, representing my country at the 2018 Triathlon World Championships and from working with dozens of world class and Olympic level athletes is that a cool down routine that includes exercising at a very reduced intensity for 5 to 10 minutes, diaphragmatic breathing exercises, low-intensity static stretching, very gentle self massage or foam rolling, plus ensuring adequate hydration and nutrition is very effective at reducing the effects of DOMS.

Can I prove that the low-intensity static stretching that I (and the athletes I’ve worked with) perform during the cool down reduces DOMS? No, I can’t. Is there any scientific evidence that proves doing low-intensity static stretching during a cool down will reduce DOMS? No, there isn’t. So you’ll have to make your own mind up on this one.

Stretching research shows that stretching does not prevent injury

Some of this has already been covered in the section above: There is no “truth” about stretching. To recap the above point; acute static stretching immediately before exercise will have little, if any effect on injury prevention. It’s the same as doing a set of squats before playing basketball and expecting the squats to prevent a basketball injury.

But everyone knows that’s not how you use squats (or strength training). No one expects a single set of squats done before a basketball game to prevent injury. So why are people surprised when a single set of stretches done before exercise also doesn’t prevent injury. All these studies prove, is that the people doing the studies have no idea what they’re doing.

The second point I want to make clear, has to do with the type of injuries we’re discussing. No one is suggesting that stretching will prevent an acute injury. Although a number of the studies tried to measure this, which again, goes to show how little the researchers know about how to use of stretching.

No amount of stretching, strength training, warming up or any other activity is going to stop you from getting injured if you step in a hole, or get tripped up in a tackle and land awkwardly. These are acute injuries that happen in an instance, and are essentially accidents that for the most part are outside our control.

The type of injuries that stretching (and strength training) can help to prevent are chronic (or overuse) injuries. But not in the way that these studies have tested.

So if doing a few stretches before exercise isn’t going to help; how do you use stretching in a way that will prevent injuries? …As part of a long term flexibility training program!

Firstly, assess the athlete for weaknesses, imbalances and areas of their game or performance where flexibility is important and needs to be improved. Then, design a program that aims to improve the flexibility of these areas. And lastly, apply the program consistently over the long term (3 months, 6 month, 12 months). As the athlete’s imbalances are minimized and their flexibility improves, so will their resilience to injury.

But there are no scientific studies that test stretching in this way. The only one referenced in Paul’s article that comes close is a study done on 1,020 army recruits that performed an exercise program of 15 minutes’ duration 3 times a week, which included 5 exercises for strength, flexibility, and coordination.

Firstly, “5 exercises for strength, flexibility, and coordination” is not a stretching program. And secondly, this exercise program wasn’t conducted before the army recruits started basic training; it was added to their basic training. All this training program would have done is put these recruits under a higher workload and added to the physical stress of their existing basic training. I’m surprised these recruits didn’t end up with more injuries, not less.

Again, all these studies prove is that the people doing the studies (desk jockey, propeller heads) have no idea what they’re doing.

Stretching can actually cause injuries

I totally agree with Paul on this one. Stretching, just like any other form of exercise, can be extremely dangerous if done incorrectly or performed on the wrong person.

Stretching research shows that stretching probably doesn’t enhance performance (and it definitely doesn’t make you sprint faster)

Again, Paul fails to make the distinction between acute stretching and chronic stretching; between a one-off bout of stretching before exercise and a long term flexibility program applied over weeks or months. The following research makes this point very clear.

Shrier, I. (2005) When and Whom to Stretch? Gauging the Benefits and Drawbacks for Individual Patients. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 33(3):22-6.

“Improvements in force, power and running speed are noted following regular stretching, in marked contrast to acute stretches performed immediately prior to exercise, which tend to yield opposite effects, (though acute stretching is helpful in certain situations, particularly where the benefits of increased ROM outweigh the limits to force and power production).”

“Stretching immediately before exercise is deemed ineffective in preventing injuries and also reduces force and power by about 2% to 5%. Regular stretching over weeks yields opposite effects, increasing force and power by about 2% to 5% while improving running speed by about 0.06 second during a 50-yard dash.

Kokkonen, J. Nelson, A. Eldredge, C. Winchester, J. (2007) Chronic Static Stretching Improves Exercise Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(10):1825-1831.

“This study suggests that chronic static stretching exercises by themselves can improve specific exercise performances. It is possible that persons who are unable to participate in traditional strength training activities may be able to experience gains through stretching, which would allow them to transition into a more traditional exercise regimen.”

So regular, consistent, long-term stretching (chronic stretching) can improve athletic performance, but doing static stretches immediately before power based activities like running, jumping and sprinting (acute stretching) can have a detrimental effect on explosive power and speed.

In other words: Doing a specific type of stretching, in a specific way, immediately before another specific activity, can have a negative effect on athletic performance.

NOT that “all stretching has no value.” Anyone who makes a comment like this either doesn’t know how to interpret a research study (or maybe they don’t have the practical, real-world experience necessary to identify the flaws in the way the research was conducted), or they have an ulterior motive.

Stretching for pain (and for pleasure)

This section is quite large and covers numerous topics related to the use of stretching as a therapy for pain relief. What follows is a snap-shot of my general thoughts in relation to some of the observations and arguments that Paul makes.

Please note: Stretching is no miracle activity. While I believe that adding stretching to any health and fitness regimen has many advantages, I also recognize that stretching in isolation (or by itself) is limited. Just like adding one or two healthy meals to an otherwise poor diet will only yield limited gains, doing the occasional stretch once or twice a week (or only before working out) will also yield limited gains. I believe the greatest gains from stretching are achieved when flexibility training is used to compliment other forms of exercise (cardio, strength training, etc.) and therapy (heat, massage, corrective exercises, etc.).

I give Paul credit in this section, he openly admits that there is so much we just don’t know about pain, let alone how, or even if, stretching helps in this area. A lot of the research is mere hearsay or anecdotal, and the rest of it neither confirms nor denies whether stretching helps or not. Of the research that does come to a conclusion either way, there seems to be just as many cases for stretching as there are against it (as a therapy for pain relief).

In regards to stretching as an aid to injury rehabilitation, Paul doesn’t offer any thoughts, however I believe that stretching plays a very important role in the long term recovery of soft tissue injuries. As stated above, I believe the biggest gains are achieved when stretching is used to compliment other therapies, as opposed to using it in isolation. I also believe the type of stretching used and when it is used is vitally important. Can I prove this? No! Is there any science to back up my beliefs? No! Although other authors do agree with me on this point.

Peter Dornan & Richard Dunn in their book, “Sporting injuries” write…

“The injury symptoms will permanently disappear only after the patient has undergone a very specific exercise program, deliberately designed to stretch and strengthen and regain all parameters of fitness of the damaged structure or structures. Further, it is suggested that when a specific stretching program is followed, thus more permanently reorganizing the scar fibers and allowing the circulation to become normal, the painful symptoms will disappear permanently.”

So again, you’ll have to make your own mind up on this one. For more information on this topic, have a read of my article titled: Stretching for Injury Rehabilitation.

Stretching for flexibility

Although we both agree that regular stretching does improve flexibility, Paul is reluctant to admit that there are any advantages to this.

“So, you can get more flexible “for whatever it’s worth,” but what is it worth? Is it actually a benefit? I will start by arguing that is not worth much to most people, even athletes.”

And… “But the reality is that hardly anyone actually needs to be more flexible.”

Forget about athletes for a moment; I regularly hear comments from “average” people who have improved their flexibility by adding stretching to their work out regimen, like: “I can get in and out of the car so much easier.” “I can bend down and tie my shoe laces.” “I can get dressed more easily.” “I can scratch by back or turn around easily.” “I can swing a golf club further.” “My sex life is better.”

These all sound like great things to me (especially the last one).

But don’t people just need to be taught how to stretch properly?

Apparently not according to Paul… “No one actually knows what a “proper” stretch is. There are no accepted standards in stretching technique (not even close), no method that is clearly superior, no way to know what’s right, no definition of success and no accepted method of achieving it.”

Although we have a long way to go in attaining definitive answers to the points Paul raises above, we are definitely closer to answers now than we were 30 years again when I started my health and fitness career. For example, when Paul states “there are no accepted standards in stretching technique (not even close),” I disagree. There is now a clear distinction between acute stretching and chronic stretching, which didn’t exist 20 years ago. All stretching is now clearly classified as either static or dynamic, with distinct types further classified under those two headings; each type having very specific protocols on how they are performed.

And to the comment, “no method that is clearly superior,” I’ve already entirely debunked that in the section above titled: Types of stretching (not just static).

In the grand scheme of things, stretching and flexibility training is in a period of infancy when compared to other exercise modalities. And yes, we still have a long way to go, but we are heading in the right direction. I predict that over the next 15 to 20 years we will see huge advancements in the field of flexibility training, and we will be able to provide scientifically based answers to a lot of these questions.

A few final points

While Paul is a very accomplished writer I don’t feel that he has the practical experience, neither personally as a high performance athlete (and no I don’t feel that playing and coaching ultimate, a hard-running Frisbee sport, counts), or professionally working with athletes, to adequately assess a large portion of the research material he references. (To know and not to do, is not to really know.) He consistently fails to identify the flaws in the way the research is conducted (not in the results and conclusions that the research comes to), but in the methods and protocols used in the research.

I don’t want this to come off as a personal attack, as it’s certainly not meant in that way, but Paul opening admits to an “ironic personal experience with serious chronic pain since 2015.” I certainly don’t know all the details about Paul’s serious chronic pain, and I could be way out of line here, but for all his work in pain science, shouldn’t he be able to treat himself or at least access resources to treat his pain?

I’m not the only one who finds fault with a number of Paul’s theories. Here are two forum threads that point out a number of flaws in Paul’s article…

And finally, by no means do I assume to know it all when it comes to stretching and flexibility. The theories and ideas I had about stretching 30 years ago are very different to the theories and ideas I have now. And I expect my current theories to continue to evolve over the next 30 years. I am totally open to any comments or criticisms any one wishes to send my way in regards to anything I have written in this article. So please feel free to contact me via the “contact” links on this page.

Research and References

Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.

Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.

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