Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why Is Stretching So Darn Popular, If Its Benefits Have Been Greatly Oversold?

At last we come to the end of my series of posts on stretching. To recap briefly, we looked at:

When stretching can be dangerous (Part I)
Why stretching doesn't fix the real problem (Part II)
Flaws in the biggest pro-stretching claims (Part III)
The real, if limited, benefits of stretching (Part IV)

Today's conclusion is the fun part for me. In the previous installments, I cribbed from other authors to make points, both anti- and pro-stretching. Today I'm flying solo, partly because I am wading into uncharted waters.

The question of the day: Why is stretching so popular if, as scientific evidence has begun to suggest, it doesn't provide the benefits it's supposed to? And why will some people keep stretching, no matter what any scientific study shows, or what any expert says?

This is fun to write about because it's "stretching as a phenomenon of the physical fitness culture." It's sort of a meta look at stretching and its persistent aspects.

So here are my reasons that stretching has become well entrenched in our physical fitness culture and isn't going anywhere soon:

1. If your knee is injured and the joint and the surrounding muscles feel tight, stretching often does make you briefly feel better.

This was my experience, after I hurt my knee and learned some stretches. What no doubt happened: the quadriceps stretch (my favorite) lengthened the muscle(s), taking pressure off the point where the bad cartilage under my kneecap pushed against my femur during bent-leg sitting. Still, it didn't take long for the muscle to contract again, so stretching was only effective for a short time. Later I realized that it wasn't fixing the underlying problem anyway.

2. Stretching seems sensible because it's natural.

We often yawn and stretch. After a period of inactivity, such as a long car ride, we get out and stretch. These types of stretching are natural. They reflect what our body wants to do, and they feel good. Of course neither is the same as focused muscle stretching that claims to have certain benefits. Still, someone can make the argument that all these forms of stretching belong to the same "family" and, by extension, they're all natural and good.

3. Stretching loosens us up. Looseness is associated with good health, tightness with bad health.

This is a very interesting point. If you do a double-column list of what we associate ordinarily with physical tightness, and what we associate with looseness, you'll discover everything bad falls on the left (tightness), everything good on the right (looseness).

Death is rigor mortis, a stiffening of muscle and sinew (tightness). When injured, parts of our bodies don't move well or easily through a natural range of motion (tightness). A natural part of the aging process includes becoming stiffer and less flexible (tightness).

Conversely, what do we expect of a young, healthy athlete? A strong, supple, flexible body -- in other words, looseness.

Faced with this fact set, stretching advocates will confuse cause and effect. They conclude that someone is injured (tightness) or prone to injury, so he needs to stretch more. They overlook the fact that injury naturally causes tightness (for example, a relatively small amount of swelling will virtually shut down a joint).

4. Stretching has its own interest group.

At first blush, this sounds sinister, and perhaps brings to mind hordes of well-paid Washington lobbyists. Well, to be considered an interest group, you don't have to be agitating in the shadows for personal profit and gain.

The interest group for stretching is a fairly benign one. It mainly comprises thousands of physical therapists and personal trainers who have been schooled in the art of stretching. They swap stretches, learn new stretches. They offer clients "assisted stretching," making valuable their ongoing involvement in the client's exercise routine.

Now suppose you received hours of training in something, learned how to do that something well, possessed an expertise in that something -- and then were told, "Uh, you know what -- that thing you learned and have been teaching -- it's really not useful after all. Sorry!"

What's your first reaction going to be? If you are like 99 percent of humans on this planet, you'll resist this new knowledge (check out cognitive dissonance here). You've become invested in whatever that something is (that they're now saying doesn't work!), so you might just ignore studies that conflict with your deeply held beliefs, thinking to yourself, "Anyone can do a study. A study can show anything!"

And, even if faced with a hundred studies that suggest you're wrong about this something you believe in, you might rationalize, "Well, a lot of people are still doing it, and they seem to get a benefit, so who cares what the studies show?"

5. Stretching has been conflated with warming up.

If muscle stretching were a biological organism, seeking to ensure its survival (I'm using a creative analogy here), the smartest thing it ever did was to align itself with something that certainly does work: warming up before exercise.

In fact, early studies that showed stretching to be effective actually showed nothing of the sort, because they looked at stretching as part of a warm-up routine (examples of warming up: lifting light weights before working out with heavier ones, jogging slowly before a race).

Warming up makes a HUGE amount of sense, I believe.

Stretching, not so much.

6. Stretching has taken on characteristics of religion, and no proof will kill it.

This point is also very interesting. Let me illustrate it with a real-life example: I was cruising message boards, looking for comments about stretching. One pro-stretcher, who seemed to be bright and willing to consider science-based data, was arguing with an anti-stretcher. They went back and forth, in civilized fashion, then the pro-stretcher finally made a curious comment that went like this:

Actually I don't care what the scientific studies show. They could all say that stretching doesn't work. I'm still going to do it. I'm going to do it because I know it does work.

What kind of argument is this? It's an argument that lies outside the realm of science and logic and reason. It's an argument from faith, common to religion. You can't kill an argument from faith. It's simply impossible.


I want to make something clear before I sign off on stretching. I don't hate stretching. I'm not committed to stamping out stretching. I'm not dogmatic about what I believe -- in fact, I am the kind of guy who is willing to concede that he could be wrong about everything he knows (or thinks he knows).

But I am also firmly of the belief that, just because everyone has done something a certain way for a long time, that does not make it automatically right.

As humans, we are gifted with rather large brains, to examine and improve the world around us. And that's what we should be committed to doing.


  1. Great article! Here is a recent clinical study that supports your point of view:

  2. Thanks, a good read. I predict there'll be many more such articles in the years to come. And I predict there'll still be many people stretching, same as they've always done, in the years to come ... :)