Each of us has probably stretched at least once in our lives. As part of the warm-up or following workout, the process of stretching is present in many sports. Stretching was also an integral part of the warm-up program during my time as an athlete. After breaking-in and a relaxed coordination training, we were supposed to “stretch” ourselves first before we went on to the uphill runs and then to the sprints. At that time I did not question that. Today we know that stretching is based more on tradition than on scientific knowledge.1 And each of us – whether we are amateur sportsmen and women or athletes – should ask ourselves if we really need mobility or if we do it just for the sake of mobility?
A muscle cannot shorten
Unfortunately, the idea that a muscle could shorten is very often spread. When we talk about it colloquially, we give a false impression of what is really happening physiologically. A muscle cannot shorten. We just don’t understand what happens and name it the way we like it. This does not mean that the muscle is supposedly too short and we have to stretch it. Shortened, tight or firm. Everything describes the same condition of the muscles and we all know this feeling. But what really happens?
Skeleton and musculature influence each other. This is important to understand. The position of the bones in relation to each other determines the function of the musculature. But when muscles contract, it directly affects the range of motion of our joints. This also affects the position of the bones in relation to each other, which in turn influences the tension of the muscles. Let’s look at a practical example.
Especially in weight training, many of us tend to develop an increased lordosis of the lumbar spine. We force the body into this position, for example to stay upright in the squat or to be able to stabilize the barbell above the head when tearing. When we look at ourselves from the side, our pelvis tilts forward slightly. This increases the pull on our leg curl at the back of the thigh. The position of the pelvis now influences the function of the leg curl. Instead of working concentrically and straightening the pelvis, the leg curlers now work eccentrically, i.e. slowly giving way.
And this has a direct effect on the range of movement of our hip joint. The ability to use the full range of motion is limited by the position of the pelvis and the pull of the leg curl. And not only that. Our leg curls feel firm, tight and shortened. And why? Because they are too weak to move the pelvis back into the normal position and counteract the increased lordosis. Muscular weaknesses are the most common reason for mobility problems. So the muscle is not shortened, it is too weak! 2-5
But after stretching, I feel flexible and loose.
Basically stretching is a training method to influence our autonomic nervous system. We come to rest, breathe into the stretching and make sure that the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for rest and relaxation prevails. By the way, the same thing happens with Foam Rolling. We have no influence on the fascia and do not loosen adhesions, but we regulate the tension of our nervous system. This is an absolutely legitimate goal. But how long does this state last?
And if we do not understand in which state of tension the supposedly too firm muscles are currently in, then we should not stretch just like that. A muscle that works eccentrically and has been anyway longer does not need to be stretched. It must be strengthened. This is a big and important difference.
By testing and analyzing the movement sequences, one can find out in which state of tension the musculature is currently in. And we should proceed in the same way. Just because we can’t squat deeply, we shouldn’t bend and try to get into position by stretching. Especially since we only influence our nervous system. And that usually only lasts for a few hours.
If our system cannot take this position, there is always a reason and in most cases we are simply too weak. After stretching, we briefly reach a position that we cannot stabilize muscularly. But if our goal is to move a maximum amount of weight, then we should be able to control the weight in a maximum stable position, right?
Do you really need Mobility Training?
You should definitely ask yourself this question. Just because a muscle feels too tight does not mean it is too short. If you can no longer get into a position, you may not have trained it for a long time or your body is not used to it. But then stretching is the wrong approach to improve mobility again. You will not have long-term success with this.
Don’t make Mobility just for the sake of Mobility. The goal should be to be able to train without much effort. In the end, the training makes you stronger and not your warm-up program. We need to understand what demands our sport brings with it and what positions we need to control. This makes technical training the best mobility training.
1) Baxter, Naughton, Sparks, Norton, & Bentley (2017). Impact of stretching on the performance and injury risk of long-distance runners. Research in Sports Medicine, 25(1), 78–90.
2) Hurley (1999). The role of muscle weakness in the pathogenesis of osteoarthritis. Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North American College of Sports Medicine, 25(2), 283-298.
3) Roos, Herzog, Block, & Bennell (2010). Muscle weakness, afferent sensory dysfunction and exercise in knee osteoarthritis. Nature Reviews Rheumatology, 7(1), 57-63.
4) Waryasz, & McDermott (2008). Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS): a systematic review of anatomy and potential risk
5) Zatsiorsky, & Prilutsky (2012). Biomechanics of Skeletal Muscle: Human Kinetics.