I love this debate! And yes, it is a debate. Stretching vs. not stretching. Who is right? As with most everything in life, there is never truly a right or wrong answer, but the truth lies somewhere between. Rather than wax poetic about both sides of the argument, I’ll just lay out my own principals.
The IDEA of stretching is to loosen up or warm up before activity in the hopes of preventing injury. The idea is that stretching can lengthen muscles, ease strain on tendons and get joints ready to bend for functional use. Unfortunately stretching doesn’t ease strain, it creates it! Most people will stretch their back, quads, calves and hamstrings. All certainly key areas to target. But stretching these areas only INCREASES the tension at the attachment points of the muscles and tendons in question.
Anatomy 101: A muscle originates from one bone and, after becoming a tendon, attaches to another bone after crossing 1 or more joints. When a muscle contracts, the will of that muscle is imparted on the joint(s) it crosses. Some muscles move joints while other muscles stabilize joints, and as always, there are exceptions to the rule.
In the case of the back, just trying to mobilize the spine can lead to disc impingement and muscle strain when you try and manipulate a bunch of stacked joints where you can’t isolate the one’s that happen to be truly tight. If the objective is to lengthen and relax, then there is really only one way to accomplish that; it’s by massaging the muscles to increase blood flow and allow them to relax, thereby DECREASING tension on the attachment points of the muscles and tendons. There are certainly muscles that can be stretched, but they are shorter, band like muscles that serve as joint stabilizers such as the piriformis for the hip. In fact, tightness in this muscle is probably the number one cause of sciatica or radicular pain to the legs (pain that refers from the hip down the leg). The big, meatier muscles like the gastrocnemius (calf) and Rectus Femoris (main belly of the Quadriceps) need to be massaged to loosen them up. Stretching these (calf stretches and hurdler stretches) only tenses up the fascia that overlies these muscles and doesn’t touch the muscle in question. There is some benefit, but not the benefit of “warming up.” Let’s not forget our good friend, Mr. Hamstring. How many of you have been told you have tight hamstrings? All day long I treat people who have been dealing with tight hamstrings for years despite years of stretching and therapy. You can stretch a hamstring all you want, but the response of the hamstring (which is chronically functionally tight in anyone who sits a lot) to stretching is for the hamstring to RESIST that stretch. Thus the hamstring engages rather than relaxes. The net result is a hamstring that fights back, not loosens or relaxes.
If you want to accomplish the goal of stretching, then the idea is to massage the muscles and see how your body begins to loosen up, get ready for exercise and reduce the risk of injury by reducing the tension on the attachment points of muscle and tendons.