The Dysfunctions of Stretching
(READING TIME 5 MIN, 25 SECONDS)
Everybody draws the assumption that flexibility is a good thing when it comes to alleviating muscle tightness and joint discomfort. The basic idea behind stretching within the fitness industry is ‘the more flexible you are the better.’ But is that really the case? What people rarely ask, if ever, is whether the stretching programs you see displayed online has any negative consequences that can ruin your movement in the long run.
Before we get started too deep on this topic, I just want to forewarn you that parts of this article can get a little technical. Most of it will be pretty straight forward, but you may want to review the article more than once to better digest the info presented here. Let's get into it!
A Bit of A Stretch
The main reason people stretch is because their body feels tight or in pain. If you bend over and feel a twinge in your lower back, or a tweak in your neck and shoulder, your first inclination might be to stretch these places out in order to alleviate the discomfort you are feeling in that given moment.
Because people think a stretch might take away the pain when something bad happens, they also tend to think they can stretch to avoid the problem from occuring in the future. What they fail to realize is that these are superficial bandaid approaches to their biomechanical problems.
The real way to prevent awkward tweaking or feelings of tightness is by learning how to move correctly first.
To move correctly, many variables need to be considered. The most important factor is learning how to program muscles for specific functions. The missing component for chronic stretchers is conceptualizing how motion is actually potentiated in reality. This context is rarely ever considered on their part. While they often know what they are stretching — and likely why they are stretching it — the biggest error people make when doing a stretch is how it won't actually facilitate integration in the body during functional movement.
Why Stretching Will Ruin Your Movement
The human body doesn’t just magically figure out how to move in space when you implement a stretch. This is especially true as it relates to muscular function. In order for a muscle to be programmed in motion, it needs to have the capacity to initiate a contraction. When muscles move together in sync, the body moves. But when muscles are overstretched, they contract less effectively, fueling the tightness people feel all over their body. In other words, lengthening muscles with stretching protocols doesn't make you move better. In fact, even the science has stated as much! While stretching might feel good, aside from the pleasurable sensations, it doesn't actually enhance movement or reduce injuries as previously thought.  
The failsafe mechanism the body uses in situations whenever muscles don’t have the right amount of contractile potential is a higher reliance on momentum and gravity to create motion. Although momentum and gravity are a fundamental part of motion propulsion in movements like running, an over-reliance on it will eventually lead to a person utilizing ligaments and tendons for motion without the muscular system. Simply speaking, you want muscles to contract in conjunction with tendons to support your joints and ligaments. The lengthening that stretching does can actually limit how effective a muscle contracts, resulting in more disintegrated movement.
Guess what these stretching programs you see all over the place are doing? That’s right, they are teaching your muscles how to switch off and moving you closer into the direction of being in pain and discomfort. If a muscle being stretched is absent of a muscle contractile potential, you are training the muscle to improperly react for motion when you need it most. When muscles shut off, your ligaments and tendons start taking the load for your muscles, and that’s when you build the foundation for a body that's more prone to injury or pain. Stretching is literally an off-switch to muscles, especially when the premise of the techniques are intended to create joint range of motion absent of muscle contractile potentials.
From our observations using EMG’s, it seems at very few points does a muscle ever completely shut off during functional movements, like a sprint. There seems to be an engagement of muscles the entire time the body is in motion. Meaning that if you are moving functionally, there might be only a small window that a muscle may relax in space. Stretching does not teach muscles to engage in the same way that you would if you were running. Maybe you can get away with stretching passively at first, but in time you will find that continual stretching is communicating to your body that your muscles need to shut off when that is definitely not an ideal situation. While more research needs to be done to fully assert this point, our observations would seem to suggest this would be a relevant thing to explore from a biomechanical standpoint.
The Solution For Your Movement Restrictions
So how is human motion potentiated in reality? During functional movement, muscles both shorten and lengthen. While this movement is happening, there should be some kind of an “action potential” involved. What is an action potential? Think about an elastic band as an example of a muscle. At one level, when you over stretch a rubber band, you'll notice that it gets less elastic over time. The body is a little more complicated than this though, because the lengthening is reciprocated by contractions — known as reciprocal inhibition. So, in the case of the anatomy of the body, it gets less elastic when contractions are missing from those stretches.
You might be wondering now, how do you “stretch” in a way that respects action potentials? Before you can even begin theorizing about techniques, it would be wise to consider the organism you’re stretching in the first place. If we were to look at a chimpanzee’s leg structure, and compared it to that of a human, what we would find is that the structures evolved very differently due to their divergent movement patterns.
Unlike chimps, humans evolved to stand up on two legs, and to run and throw as priorities.   As a result, there are different evolutionary blueprints that code for different standards of flexibility. The fundamental movements of standing, walking, running and throwing provide the code that dictates how to program flexibility in a way that is biologically relevant to humans. Prioritizing these 4 movements, what Functional Patterns has termed the Big Four, serves as the foundation for all other relevant motions for humans  — including the ranges of motion that determine functional flexibility.
That isn’t to say that we don’t use concepts of stretching in FP, but first and foremost we advocate that people should be taking into account the evolutionary precursors of the organism you are trying to stretch!
Furthermore, it is vitally important that you correct your dysfunctions first before you do something like a stretch. If you never correct the body’s asymmetries that are prompting you to stretch your muscles dysfunctionally in the first place, then you will actually exacerbate the problem rather than addressing it whenever you do a stretch. Most people are hoping that their stretching will correct their movement, but what they fail to realize is that stretching itself deals only in passive potentials, not action potentials. Preparing the body for movement by taking it through passive mechanical potentials is a surefire way to create further imbalances on the body!
Rather than going down the route of stretching, we need to correct the imbalances on the body that are causing you the discomfort. The FP Big 4 are the primary indicators that measure functionality, exposing the imbalances causing the discomfort and tightness people are trying to stretch out. When you prioritize applying the FP Big 4 into your training, you will be able to address your imbalances in a systematic way, and get rid of the discomfort for good!
Instead of taking the bandaid approach with all these various stretching modalities, the key point here is to take an approach that actually gets closer to solving the problem. The better you move, the less stretching you need, and if you want to move better you have to prioritize the movements that are coded into your biology. That’s where the FP Big 4 comes in as the foundation to rid yourself of restrictive movement dysfunctions.
If you want to get more information on how to lengthen your tissues in a more functional way, while also correcting your imbalances and helping you to move better, be sure to check out our courses. We'll take you down the path for a sustainable alternative to stretching that won't make you weak and put strain on your body. Instead, you will learn how to sync your muscles together so that you get both flexibility AND strength in the muscular system that transfers to better movement. If you're looking to alleviate the constant need to stretch, start your FP journey and feel the results for yourself.
This is Functional Patterns reminding you to stretch intentionally, and not habitually.