The truth about stretching

Should you stretch or not, should you bounce in the stretch or keep it constant, should you stretch before or after sport? There’s so much information about, it’s hard to know what’s right. What’s right and what’s wrong? Eight questions answered by physiotherapist Sebastian Cormier.

Text: Helwi Braunmiller, Photos: used with permission

1. Should we bounce while stretching?

No, this is more likely to be counter-productive. There’s a risk that beginners will injure themselves if they bounce beyond their natural degree of mobility.

2. Should we stretch before, during or after sport?

Studies show that it makes no difference whether you stretch before, during or after sport. To this day we can’t say whether stretching prevents injuries or reduces muscle soreness, let alone whether it makes us more flexible!

“Stretching is used primarily to wind down mentally.”
Sebastian Cormier

Stretching after sport is used more to “wind down” mentally. Before doing sport, I recommend doing a dynamic warm-up to prepare your body and mind specifically for the upcoming sporting demands.

3. How important is regular stretching?

It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you can’t do specific movements because of a lack of flexibility, daily exercises can often help you achieve success in the short term, because it changes the nervous system. However, it takes years to change the connective tissue and muscle fibres in the long term. This happens not only through stretching, but also because the body adapts to the strain as a whole. One example is gymnasts who have practised certain acrobatic movements from childhood.

4. What role does breathing play in stretching?

Conscious breathing plays a central role in stretching. It supports slow movements, because the body needs time to relax, like a volume button that you turn down.  Forced or jerky movements turn the volume up, and the body tenses.

5. Do we need to stretch at all?

Unlike regular exercise and targeted strength training, science does not attribute any measurable benefit to stretching. However, many people simply feel good doing it – like the immediate benefit of scratching an itch. You feel the benefits of stretching through the nervous system. It doesn’t change the structural length of muscle fibres or connective tissue. 

“Muscles and connective tissue structures can’t be changed.”
Sebastian Cormier

In fact, some muscles and connective tissue structures can’t be changed at all. This would take immense strength that we can’t apply on our own.  

6. Are there areas of the body that we should particularly focus on when stretching?

I mostly recommend stretching exercises for the shoulder girdle, thoracic spine and hips.

7. Do the stretches vary depending on which sport you do or are there some exercises which are suitable for everyone?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution or standard programme. I recommend an individual, sport-specific, dynamic warm-up that involves all parts of the body. 

8. Is there one exercise that’s most effective?

I personally like the sun salutation that you do in yoga. This exercise delivers everything you need, and the sequence can be adjusted to suit any level.

Sebastian Cormier

Physiotherapist, manual therapist and sports scientist at the WIN4 Medbase Sports Medical Center in Winterthur.