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20 years of writing about stretching

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

I have now rebooted one of my oldest and most successful articles, Quite a Stretch: Stretching science has shown that this extremely popular form of exercise has almost no measurable benefits. I added or expanded several sub-topics to really round it out and make it feel more complete, most notably:

  • An overview of types/methods of stretching. I always assumed I was missing several, but not really: other than branded variations of dynamic stretching, there really are only a handful of stretching methods.
  • Ballistic stretching. Despite its reputation, ballistic stretching is not actually unsafe or even useless in my opinion.
  • Mechanisms of flexibility. I especially added more information about both “plasticity” and “tolerance.” This was the most educational new content for me, requiring deep dives into some exotic muscle physiology — one of my favourite things to study. As always, I was dazzled by what I did not know.
  • Stretching as cramp first aid. Is stretching a “treatment” for exertional cramps?
  • Stretching for back pain, especially hamstring stretching.
  • Neurodynamic stretching. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I hadn’t realized how much of a thing this is, a proper little modality empire.

Mistakes were made, and they were made by me

Any major content renovation like this will expose some embarrassing shortcomings and errors. There was nothing too awful, but what I had published about flexibility for years stood out as simplistic to the point of being misleading. Even though I had correctly identified “tolerance” as an extremely important idea about how flexibility works, I explained it poorly, and contrasted it with an extremely simplistic interpretation of the alternatives. This has now been rectified.

”I think we’re a book now” 🎶

Sing that to the tune of Tiffany’s “I think we’re alone now.”

My stretching “article” now weighs in at a whopping 34,000 words, which gives it a dubious distinction: it’s the first PainSci article to match the length of the shortest PainSci book (about muscle strains). Henceforth and forthwith, I will call it a “book,” with my tongue in my cheek. It is certainly a monster of an article, at the least.

A demonstration of “pandiculation.”

Stretch way back

Pieces of this article date back to the early 2000s and my earliest attempts at debunking. As I recall — who really knows with the brain, but this is the memory — I came to my skepticism about stretching honestly.

I started out trying to cite studies that supported stretching advice I was giving to my massage therapy clients, and to the students in my morning stretching classes on the beach. Having been a taijiquan and qigong practitioner for years, I had come to think that dynamic stretching was the way to go, and so I had a very conventional bias against mere static stretching, but I was otherwise bias in favour of stretching.

Only I kept finding evidence that pointed away from stretching. Oops.

As with essentially every topic I have ever written about, I am amazed at how I continue to learn. After 20 years of regularly dipping into the stretching science, I can still find myself reading some paper and saying, "Hey now, I did not know that. How did I not know that?"

In mosts cases, probably because no one did until recently. We all still have a great deal to learn about how the body works.

Re-read it … again?

Infinitely updated content is one of the most appreciated features of PainScience, but once folks have read a mighty article like this, they surely feel like they have been there, done that and I suspect very few ever actually return — even if the article has been thoroughly rebooted. (Maybe two or three times.)

If you have never read it, now's a good time.

If you have read it before, you can cherry pick the new content: clicking on the date under the title will jump down to a list of updates at the bottom of the page, with links to the updated sections.