Stretching vs. Flexibility for Athletes

Is Flexibility Overrated?

Groin and Inner Thigh Stretch
Groin and Inner Thigh Stretch. Ryan McVay / Getty Images

Are you confused by information about stretching, flexibility , and athletic performance? If so, you aren't alone. Expert opinions conflict on the benefits and harms of stretching and flexibility and a growing number of voices can be heard claiming that flexibility is overrated and stretching really makes no difference at all. What's an athlete to do?

While that research continues to pile up on both sides, we can make some informed decisions about what is right for us as athletes by looking at what is currently known (which changes day to day), and combining this with our own experience. When sorting out all the research, it's important to remember that there is a difference between the terms "flexibility" and "stretching."

What Is Flexibility?

Flexibility refers to range of motion (ROM) around a joint. This is pretty straight-forward and is generally based upon our anatomy and the function of a specific joint. Each joint has an ideal, or normal range of motion in order to maintain stability while it moves through a full range of motion. Too much ROM in a joint can be just as harmful as too little ROM, and result in joint instability, dislocations, and deterioration. Physical limits to range of motion are determined by our skeleton, joint type, ligaments, tendons, muscles, etc.

Other things that affect ROM include disease, injuries, and adaptations to repeated movements. This last one is often overlooked by athletes as one of the biggest factors in our "limited ROM." We adapt to what we do. If we consistently play one sport or perform the same (limited) movement patterns over years, we will adapt to those patterns.

What Is Stretching?

Unlike flexibility, stretching refers to actively attempting to increase our range of motion around a joint. And this is where all those expert opinions enter the picture. Should we actively attempt to increase a given range of motion around a joint? Well, the answer is, it depends. It depends on how our joint range of motion compares with the normal range of motion for that same joint. It depends on what muscles we over- or under-use. It depends on our injuries. And it depends on our goals. Biomechanic experts and physical therapists generally use the norms for normal range of motion around a joint as the basis for determining muscle imbalances. The goal is to return a patient to "normal range of motion." PTs also use comparative range of motion--comparing one side of the body to the other--to determine what joint or joints need 'fixing.'

Athletes and Flexibility

Certain sports set athletes up for muscle imbalance and reduced ROM in specific joints. Take cyclists, for example. Cycling requires a limited, repeated motion of the hip, knee, and ankle. At no point is the cyclist moving through a maximum range of motion around those joints, which often leads to strong, yet tight muscles. The aerodynamic cycling position puts the spine in lumbar and thoracic flexion and cervical extension for extended periods of time. The hamstrings, hip flexors, and pecs are all shortened; while the quadriceps and glutes are the main power generators. All of these movement patterns may result in muscle imbalances if a cyclist doesn't stretch and strengthen accordingly.

For a cyclist, stretching through a full range of motion makes a lot of sense. But so does strengthening the muscles that are less active in order to prevent muscle imbalances. Some would argue, it's not really about flexibility at all. The issue is that overused muscles become strong, but tight and shortened, while the opposing, inactive, muscles become weaker and loose. And those experts argue that this is the real issue behind the debate over flexibility and stretching for athletes.

Is Flexibility Overrated? - Flexibility and Stretching In the Real World

So, now that you are thoroughly confused about flexibility for athletes, what should you do? Here are some points to consider when deciding what, and how much, you need to stretch:

  • Every joint has an ideal range of motion in order to maintain stability while moving freely.
  • Too much ROM in a joint can be as undesirable as too little ROM because it decreases joint stability.
  • Strive for balanced flexibility on the right and left sides of the body and in opposing muscle groups and adjacent joints.
  • If your ROM is far from the norms, consider strengthening the loose areas and stretching the tight areas.
  • Many athletes benefit from increasing strength and stability in the core (lumbar spine, pelvis and glutes) as well as the shoulder joint.
  • Many athletes benefit from increasing range of motion in the thoracic spine and shoulder girdle (scapula), the hip joint and the ankles.
  • Static stretching, if performed, should be done after exercise.
  • Use a dynamic warm up prior to exercise.

So, while overall stretching may feel great after your workouts or in a yoga class, the real benefits of stretching may be related to a more focused approach that strives to maintain appropriate range of motion around specific joints. I would also argue that stretching or releasing tight muscles should go hand in hand with strengthening the weak ones.

View Article Sources
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  • Raymond Soa, Joseph Ngb, Gabriel Ngb, Muscle recruitment pattern in cycling: a review. []. Physical Therapy in Sport 6 (2005) 89–96
  • Trehearn TL, Buresh RJ.. Sit-and-reach flexibility and running economy of men and women collegiate distance runners. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan;23(1):158-62.
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