Thursday, December 3, 2009

Is Stretching Unnecessary?

I love X Stretch. It feels good, and it's a nice, restful (albeit sometimes slightly uncomfortable) way to wind down or relieve tightness and soreness. Last night, I still felt achy from running, so I popped in the X Stretch DVD. Over the course of an hour, my body gradually relaxed and my muscles loosened and lengthened.

But this morning, I felt tight again. (This totally bummed me out. Instead of X Stretching, I could have been watching Steven Seagal: Lawman.)

It turns out that stretching evidently doesn't do all that much for your body.
In fact, the latest science suggests that extremely loose muscles and tendons are generally unnecessary (unless you aspire to join a gymnastics squad), may be undesirable and are, for the most part, unachievable, anyway. “To a large degree, flexibility is genetic,” says Dr. Malachy McHugh, the director of research for the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an expert on flexibility. You’re born stretchy or not. “Some small portion” of each person’s flexibility “is adaptable,” McHugh adds, “but it takes a long time and a lot of work to get even that small adaptation. It’s a bit depressing, really.”
WTF? Haven't we learned from Tony Horton, Shaun T and others that stretching helps loosen our muscles and tendons, and enhances our flexibility and range of motion? Aren't they right?
According to the science, the answer appears to be no. “There are two elements” involved in stretching a muscle, Dr. McHugh says. One is the muscle itself. The other is the mind, which sends various messages to the muscles and tendons telling them how to respond to your stretching when the discomfort of the stretching becomes too much. What changes as you stretch a muscle is primarily the message, not the physical structure of the muscle. “You’ll start to develop a tolerance” for the discomfort of the stretch, Dr. McHugh says. Your brain will allow you to hold the stretch longer. But the muscles and tendons themselves will not have changed much. You will feel less tight. But even this sensation of elasticity is short-lived, Dr. McHugh says. 
In a new review article of the effects of stretching that he co-wrote and that will be published soon in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, he looked at the measurable impacts of a number of different stretching regimens. What he found was that when people performed four 90-second stretches of their hamstrings, their “passive resistance” to the stretching decreased by about 18 percent — they felt much looser — but the effect had passed in less than an hour. To achieve a longer-lasting impact, and to stretch all of the muscles involved in running or other sports, he says, would probably require as much as an hour of concerted stretching. “And the effects still wouldn’t be permanent,” he says. “You only see changes” in the actual, physical structure of the muscles “after months of stretching, for hours at a time. Most people aren’t going to do that.”
And most of us don’t need to. “Flexibility is a functional thing,” Dr. Knudson says. “You only need enough range of motion in your joints to avoid injury. More is not necessarily better.”
So let's recap. We previously came to understand that cool-downs are unnecessary. And we already know that Tony Horton talks too much. Now that we're learning that stretching's benefits aren't as great as we were led to believe, doesn't this mean we can further shave down the time it takes to complete each P90X (and even Insanity) routine? What's left to do besides warming up and diving right into the core exercises?

Personally, I'm going to keep stretching -- not because I think I'm going to become a super-flexible guy, or that stretching is going to enhance my athletic performance. I'm going to stretch because it feels good.