Stretching: What is it really like, what are the real benefits?
Many different forms of muscle stretching are performed before and/or after sports activity. It is indeed a common practice among athletes.
Traditionally, it has been recognized that muscle stretching is beneficial for athletic performance, recovery, and injury prevention. However, for more than a decade now, several scientific studies have downplayed these beneficial effects.
The different types of stretching you can benefit from during your functional fitness training
There are several types of stretching, for several purposes (therapeutic, relaxation…), I will speak here about the stretching most practiced in the world of sports, passive stretching, and cyclic stretching.
Passive stretching is the most common type of stretching used in sports.
It is the stretching of a muscle group through an extension caused by an external force, without any voluntary muscular contraction.
This external force can be applied by a third party or by the athlete himself. In the second case, the athlete uses gravity or various body positions to stretch the desired muscle group.
Among passive stretching, a distinction must be made between static stretching and cyclic stretching.
In static passive mobilization techniques, the principle is to bring the joint to an angle where the muscle group is close to the maximum stretch and to maintain the joint at this angle.
Cyclic stretching, on the other hand, is characterized by the repetition of stretching of the musculo-articular system followed without delay by a return to the starting position (for example, “leg climbs” via a “kick” where the leg is projected upwards, as often seen during warm-up in combat sports).
When and how to stretch during your fitness training
Avoid stretching the muscles early at high speed. Indeed, at high stretching speeds, a capacity for energy absorption is required. If the muscle does not have this capacity, it can be damaged.
This is why cyclic stretching should start at slow speeds to increase the muscle’s capacity to absorb the energy generated by the stretching. It has been shown that relatively few repetitions (three to four) are sufficient to substantially reduce this energy, whatever the speed of passive mobilization, partially protecting the muscle from the risk of injury during stretching.
Does stretching before or after exercise help performance and recovery?
Many athletes stretch during their warm-up, or at the end of their session, for varying lengths of time and using different techniques for different coaches or athletes.
In the context of stretching at the beginning of a session (during warm-up for example), numerous studies have shown that stretching has a detrimental effect on strength, maximal strength, strength endurance, and power. There is, therefore, from the point of view of sporting performance, no point in stretching before a training session, on the contrary, it will even tend to reduce the athlete’s performance.
In terms of recovery (stretching session carried out after a workout or a competition), the different aspects of stretching discussed lead to similar conclusions: the practice of stretching alone is not in itself an effective recovery modality in general. It is even, under certain conditions, completely contraindicated; in fact, stretching should not be carried out immediately after specific sports activities which cause DOMS (see my article about DOMS), as these can aggravate micro lesions of the muscles and lengthen the necessary recovery time.
What are the benefits of stretching for your fitness journey?
Stretching has many benefits, especially in terms of increased flexibility and range of motion of the joints, and in therapy (for example, in the context of muscle chain equilibrating), and in the context of a competitive sport, it can act in a general way on the sensation of pain and the subjective state of fatigue, relaxing the athlete.
Contrary to the immediate effects observed (described above), muscular stretching, when repeated over a period of a few weeks, tends to increase strength; if stretching is not recommended immediately before an exercise for which muscular strength is essential, its regular practice, far from hindering strength performance, is beneficial.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Reference: « Améliorer sa récupération en sport » — Christophe Hausswirth et Véronique Rousseau — Librairies INSEP