The Definitive Guide to Why Stretching and Mobility Exercises are Completely Overrated

The front of your thighs feel tight when you’re at the bottom of a squat.

Your shoulders feel tight when doing an overhead press.

Your calves get tight when running.

You feel sore after workouts.

Maybe you’ve gotten injured in the past.

You’re told to stretch. You need to lengthen, pull, and loosen your muscles and tendons every day.

If you do enough stretches and mobility exercises, you’ll be able to move pain free, avoid injury, and perform better.

Even if you think you’re moving without a problem, you may be setting yourself up for an injury, or severely limiting your athletic performance.

That’s what people say. Many coaches, trainers, physical therapists, and athletes are convinced that stretching is an essential part of a fitness program.

It’s easy to be convinced when you see testimonials from pro athletes and average people getting better after stretching.

The truth is that there is very little evidence stretching or many mobility exercises do *any* of the things people claim. They’re overrated — useless in many cases — and this article will show you why.

Stretching versus Mobility Exercises: A Primer

When most people say “stretching,” they’re referring to “static stretching.” In this case, you push your body past its normal range of motion, and hold that position for a set length of time.

For example, trying to touch your toes while standing with your knees locked, is a kind of static stretching.

“Mobility exercises,” are slightly different. Mobility exercises often include techniques like self-massage, foam rolling, and cueing, but many of them include some form of static stretching. In some cases, they’re basically the same thing.

Many forms of mobility exercises probably are helpful, and I’m not saying they’re all useless or overrated.

In the rest of this article, when I say “stretching,” I’m referring to any movement where you’re holding a muscle in the stretched position, like trying to touch your toes.

I’m not talking about foam rolling, massage, and all that jazz — just static stretching.

To begin, let’s define the main reasons people claim you should stretch.

The 5 Reasons People Claim You Should Stretch

1. Increasing flexibility.
2. Preventing injuries and pain.
3. Improving performance.
4. Preventing or reducing muscle soreness.
5. Warming up for a workout.

In this article, we’ll look at the evidence behind these reasons.

Stretching Does Increase Flexibility, But Does That Matter?

There’s a general assumption that people aren’t as flexible as they should be.

People claim that you have short and tight muscles and tendons, which prevents you from being able to move correctly. Allegedly, stretching fixes that problem .

Poor posture? You should stretch your shoulders and lower back.

Does your butt pop backward? Stretch your hip flexors.

Do your knees cave inward on the squat? Stretch your hips and legs.

And when people stretch, they get more flexible.(1-7)

There are two theories as to how this happens:(8)

The first idea is that stretching makes the muscles and tendons longer — literally stretching the fibers. This is called “plastic deformation.”

The second idea claims that muscles and tendons don’t get longer, but your body becomes more used to the sensation of being forced into a stretched position.

To test these competing theories, researchers applied a weight to people’s limbs to push them into a stretched position. They basically measured how long it took people to say “Stop, that’s as far as I can go.”

After several weeks of stretching, the subjects were more flexible. But, it took far more weight to push their limbs into their new, more flexible positions. The stretching didn’t make the muscles or tendons longer — it made them more tolerant of being pushed outside their normal range of motion.(8-10) The researchers also used other methods to make sure this was true.

Basically, the brain places a limit on how far it lets your limbs travel. When you try to go outside this range of motion, your brain views that as a possible threat and tells the muscles to stiffen. By gradually pushing your limbs past their comfort zone, you can train your brain to become more comfortable in extreme positions.

There’s a little evidence that muscles can get *slightly* longer, but it’s not enough to have any significant impact on movement.(1,10) It’s the increase in “stretch tolerance,” as the researchers call it, that makes you more flexible.

That makes sense when you consider that tendons are some of the strongest tissues in your body. In some cases, they’ll actually rip off the bone rather than tear or snap. (That’s called an avulsion fracture).

If you’re a dancer, acrobat, gymnast, or yoga enthusiast, stretching might be a good idea.(11) In those activities, you need to be very flexible. If you want to do a split, back bridge, or scorpion, you need to have higher than average stretch tolerance.

Alina Kabaeva doing a scorpion. If you want to do something like that, you should probably stretch. Otherwise, there’s little evidence it’s necessary.

Higher than average flexibility doesn’t matter unless you’re pursuing a sport that requires you to be extremely flexible.

It’s also unlikely that stretching would have much of an impact on daily movements or positions, like your posture. It does make you more flexible, but only at the limits of your range of motion. You still have to force yourself into an extreme position for that to matter.

But, you wonder, wouldn’t being more flexible help you in every sport by making you more resistant to injury? Let’s find out.

Stretching Doesn’t Protect You From Injury

If you’re more flexible, you’re told it’s less likely you’ll strain a muscle or tear a tendon.

But most studies have shown that stretching does not have any impact on injury rates.(12-22)

Here’s why:

1. There is no evidence that a more flexible muscle is better at absorbing energy (like from getting tackled or falling) than a stiff one. In fact, most evidence indicates the opposite.(23)

2. Most injuries occur during the course of normal movement, inside your normal range of motion. As the authors of one review stated, “If most injuries occur in the normal range of motion, then why would an increased range of motion protect against injuries?” There’s no strong evidence that it does.(23)

3. Almost every study that seemed to indicate stretching might reduce injuries also used other interventions. For example, studies on soccer players also had the athletes use shin guards and ankle tape, learn about injuries from their coaches, and use several other methods.(23)

In other words, there were about five or six other possible reasons they didn’t get injured besides stretching. Combine that with the majority of evidence showing stretching has no impact on injuries, and it seems unlikely stretching was the reason these athletes stayed healthy.

4. The same researchers suggested that being able to push your body past its normal range of motion may increase your risk of injury. This is because stretching helps you build a tolerance to the signals that would normally keep you from going into an extreme position. To be fair though, there’s no evidence that’s true either.(23)

Another less common claim is that stretching can help prevent or treat trigger points — small patches of muscle that hurt.

The problem is that we’re not even sure if trigger points exist, so there’s no way to know if stretching would help prevent or treat them. It also seems unlikely that stretching an entire limb would make a tiny patch of muscle feel better. Some of the most well-respected authors on trigger points have suggested that stretching could make them worse.(24)

It’s unlikely that stretching lowers your chance of injury. A few studies have shown that stretching *may* reduce the risk of traumatic tendon and ligament injuries, but it’s not enough to know for sure.(18,19)

In other words, stretching has never been shown to reduce your risk of injury to any meaningful degree.

A few studies have shown that stretching can help people recover from plantar heal pain and other injuries(25-27) but it’s hard to tell if stretching is the main therapy that’s helping.(28) Usually, people are doing other treatments at the same time.

It’s possible that stretching might help people *recover* from certain injuries, but there’s little evidence it will help *prevent* them.

But what about performance? Shouldn’t stretching help you move more efficiently, thus helping you squat more, run faster, and perform better at most sports?

Stretching Doesn’t Improve Your Performance, Unless Your Performance is Limited by Your Flexibility

Here’s why people think being flexible makes you a better athlete:

In theory, if you can become more flexible at your end range of motion, you become more flexible in all ranges of motion.

As an exaggerated example, if you can do a split, you should be able to squat deeper.

And part of that’s true — you might be able to go deeper on a bodyweight squat or raise your leg higher while standing.

But what about when you’re squatting several hundred pounds or sprinting at full speed? I.e., what happens when you’re actually practicing your sport?

Squatting under a heavy load on your feet is very different from a kneeling forward lunge, even if they work similar muscle groups.

There’s little evidence that being more flexible transfers into better performance in most sports (6,29,30). There’s also some evidence it could hurt.

A 2012 review found “overwhelming evidence that stretch durations of 30-45 seconds … imparted no significant effect,” on performance. When the athletes stretched longer than 60 seconds, their average performance decreased.(31)

In another study, pre-run stretching caused an 8% drop in running performance on a one mile uphill run.(32)

Static stretching can also reduce the pace at which runners start a race.(33) That could significantly hurt their chances of winning, since most high level athletes start faster than their goal pace.(34) The same study found that the runners who stretched felt like they were working harder during the first 800 meters of the race, despite going slower. The stretchers also finished a little slower than the non-stretchers, although the difference wasn’t significant.

Most studies have shown that stretching reduces sprinting speed, jumping performance, and strength,(20,31,43-56) whereas others have shown no change.(1,57-59)

Another kind of stretching called “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation,” or PNF, also causes the same drop in performance. It also doesn’t increase flexibility any more than regular stretching.(47,60-62)

To be fair, these studies generally had the athletes stretching right before their training. They also stretched much longer than most people do in the real world, so it’s unlikely stretching has much of an impact on your performance.

Nevertheless, stretching made the athletes in almost all of these studies more flexible, but it didn’t make them perform better.

On the other hand, if you’re in a sport or activity where it’s an advantage to push your body into an extreme range of motion, it might be worth stretching.(11) Here are a few examples:

– Gymnastics.

– Wrestling.

– Martial arts like Jiu Jitsu, MMA, and Krav Maga.

– Acrobatics.

– Ballet.

– Break dancing.

– Yoga.

For most sports, there’s no research showing it will make you perform better. There’s also some evidence it could reduce your strength, power, and endurance.

But if you enjoy stretching, the effects (both good and bad) tend to go away after about 10 minutes to an hour.(1,36,47,63) So if you want to stretch before a workout, do it at least 30 minutes beforehand.

Stretching Doesn’t Prevent or Reduce Muscle Soreness

Another reason people stretch after workouts is to recover faster. There are two reasons people think this is the case:

1. Stretching helps “flush” metabolic byproducts out of your system that normally interfere with recovery.

2. Stretching relaxes muscles after a workout, which helps them recover faster.

Unfortunately, neither of these claims have any evidence to support them.

A large 2011 Cochrane review found that “… stretching before or after exercising has no effect on delayed onset muscle soreness.”(64) Several other reviews have found the same thing.(12,21)

In other words, stretching does nothing to prevent or reduce muscle soreness, no matter when you do it. This review covered all of the best literature up to that time, and included several thousand people.

Let’s look at why this is the case.

First of all, most of the metabolic byproducts associated with fatigue from exercise are cleared soon after the workout. It’s not like your legs become a cesspool of “bad” chemicals that sit there and delay your recovery.(65-67)

Second, stretching has no effect on the blood chemicals that are generally associated with fatigue.(68)

In addition, stretching can actually cause a significant rise in muscle soreness in people who aren’t used to it.(69) If you stretch often this probably isn’t a big deal, but it doesn’t indicate it would help.

Finally, stretching has a minimal effect on blood flow — it doesn’t raise your heart rate much, which means it’s unlikely to “flush” anything out.

Stretching may make your muscles *feel* more relaxed, but as noted above, it doesn’t make your muscles longer.(1,8,10) Excessive stretching can actually cause muscle soreness.

So, why do so many people think that stretching helps reduce muscle soreness? Well, stretching can feel good, and anything that makes you feel better is generally going to make a sore muscle less bothersome, just like a warm bath.

Now let’s talk about stretching as part of a warmup.

Stretching Doesn’t “Warm Up” Your Muscles

For years, most textbooks and coaches have recommended stretching as part of a warmup. I did it in little league football, lacrosse, soccer, rugby, basketball, swimming, and cross country.

People usually also warmup with things like high knee drills, jogging, etc., but stretching is almost always included.

If you ask people why, they’ll usually tell you that a) stretching helps you avoid injury, or b) it helps you warm up. We’ve already debunked the first reason, so let’s focus on the second.

The two main goals of the warmup are to increase blood flow and prepare your neuromuscular system for whatever it is you’re about to do. Or in other words, “get into the groove” of your sport.

Stretching doesn’t accomplish either of those goals.

Stretching doesn’t increase your heart rate to a meaningful degree.

Stretching also doesn’t prepare your body for most movements. Stretching generally reduces your strength, power, and endurance, or has no effect.(1,20,31,43-59) It’s also unlikely to transfer to other movements. Most sports don’t force your body into extreme ranges of motion, and the effects of stretching are generally temporary or completely nonexistent.

There is evidence that warmups reduce injury, reduce the severity of injuries, and help athletes perform better. But, you can get those benefits without stretching.(8,70-72)

Unless you’re in a sport that requires you to use an extreme range of motion(11), like gymnastics, there’s no evidence stretching will help you warmup.

Stretching is Almost Completely Useless, But Here are 2 Good Reasons to Keep Doing It

Let’s review what we know about stretching, and mobility exercises that include static stretching:

1. Stretching does make people more flexible, but it’s not by “lengthening” or “loosening” the muscles or tendons. Stretching makes people more comfortable being in a stretched position, and that isn’t necessarily an advantage in most sports.

2. There’s no evidence that stretching reduces injuries. Most injuries occur within people’s normal range of motion, and there’s little reason to believe increasing their range of motion would reduce their risk of injury. There are also some hypothetical reasons why stretching may increase someone’s risk of injury, though there isn’t much evidence that’s true either.

3. In most cases, stretching has no effect on performance, as long as it’s less than 30-45 seconds. If you stretch more than 60 seconds, there’s a greater chance of temporarily reducing your performance. These effects only tend to last around 30 minutes, but that can still hurt your performance in some sports, like running.

4. There’s no evidence that stretching reduces or prevents muscle soreness, or helps muscles recover.

5. Stretching doesn’t “warmup” your muscles or help prepare you for most sports. In most cases it decreases your performance or has no effect. Several studies have found that you can get all of the benefits of a warmup by performing whatever you’re about to do at a lower intensity, without stretching. For example, running at a lower speed before a 5K, or doing squats with a lower weight before moving to your work sets.

Despite this evidence, there are two good reasons to keep stretching:

1. It feels good.

Many people, including myself, think stretching feels good. This is basically what I look like getting up in the morning:

As long as you aren’t doing it immediately before exercise, and you don’t hold it for too long, there’s little evidence stretching will interfere with your performance. If you think it feels good, do it. Just remember *why* you’re doing it.

2. It might improve your performance in flexibility dependent sports.

If you’re in a sport like gymnastics or dance, stretching might be a good idea. You’ll probably have to stretch a lot to make a significant difference in your flexibility, but it might be worth it.

This raises an important question that’s probably been on your mind from the beginning of this article:

What if you have limited mobility in a sport that doesn’t require superhuman flexibility?

For example, what if your hip flexors feel so tight that you can’t get to the bottom of a squat?

What if your arms feel so tight that you can’t get the bar in the right position on a squat or overhead press?

I think the solution is specific practice. Actively trying to go a little deeper on your squat in every workout is a kind of stretching, and it’s a lot more likely to help than kneeling lunges or some other movement.

This technique is sometimes referred to as “active dynamic stretching,” or ADS. Using this method, you move your body through its current maximum range of motion, without pausing. The movement shouldn’t feel painful or uncomfortable, and you should keep moving the entire time.

Even though this is *called* “stretching,” you wouldn’t think of it as stretching if you saw someone doing it. By definition, you’re working mostly within your current range of motion, and it’s not meant to lengthen your muscles and tendons.

Active dynamic stretching generally improves sprint performance,(1,11,43,52,56,74,) although not always.(43,55,75)

To use ADS, you could squat with a light weight, and sit as low as you can comfortably. Then you push yourself a little deeper each time.

For running, you could do strides or medium effort hill sprints that push you into a slightly greater range of motion compared to your normal runs.

It’s unlikely something like a hip flexor stretch actually transfers to better squat mobility, given you’re using different loads in a completely different position.(6) It might work, but it’s probably not optimal. Lifting weights can also improve your flexibility just as much as static stretching, plus you’ll get stronger.(73)

In other words, specific training is generally best, including when it comes to improving your range of motion.

It’s also possible that some kind of mobility work, even a little static stretching, might help people with severely limited every-day mobility. For example, if a 50-year old man has trouble sitting down without pain, he might want to think about stretching and doing mobility exercises. In that case, the person’s “normal” range of motion is still not comfortable, and they need to increase their stretch tolerance.

If that sounds like you, or you practice a sport that requires you to be extremely flexible, stretching might be a good idea. It’s unlikely to help outside of those cases.

The Bottom Line for Stretching

– If you enjoy stretching, and have the time for it, and you aren’t doing it immediately before exercise, keep doing it.

– If you don’t enjoy static stretching, and you want to use your time for other things, there’s no evidence you’re missing any benefits.

– The best way to improve range of motion is probably to practice your sport, not to use stretching or mobility exercises.

I think Alex Hutchinson summed up the argument best:

“Keep doing whatever you’re doing if it makes you happy, because there’s not really enough evidence to insist on changes.”

So don’t feel like you *need* to stretch to become more flexible or a better athlete. If you are stretching, don’t feel like you need to stop — just understand that it’s more of a “feel good” luxury than a necessity.

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