“Yoga will make you more flexible, but we don’t know how,”

~Jules Mitchell, yoga instructor and a master’s degree candidate in exercise science at California State University, Long Beach.

Well, what is stretching then and why is it so hyped? Stretching is actually more complex than you or I once thought… I’m sure you’ve been told time and time again that stretching helps elongate muscles and help you prevent injuries. Well, this is actually unclear to scientists. Just like permanent tattoos we don’t actually know the complete story behind it. We are dragged into thinking we are completely knowledgeable about the subject due to it being practiced for centuries. I know what you’re thinking, “then why am I even stretching before and/or after if it doesn’t help me with anything”. Well, you’re in luck because this post explains what science has uncovered so far.

What is the science behind stretching?

So far, experts agree that stretching doesn’t actually elongate your muscles permanently. Instead stretching might just aid your central nervous system (CNS) to tolerate the greater extent of muscle extensions without sending out pain signals that your body is in danger. According to Katy Bowman, a biochemist, our sarcromeres (the basic contractile units of muscles) change on the cellular level such that it’s easier for us to do what we’re already doing. They will even cannibalize themselves to make sitting at a desk the new norm. Stretching doesn’t significantly reduce the risk of injury either if done for a couple of months but science has yet to prove if it does over a period of years.

Credits: Designua/

So how do we normalize those super complicated stretches we see gymnasts, dancers, yogis etc do? Science advises that proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretches are more effective than static stretches. Mitchell suggested that this type of “stretching loads the muscle with more force at a greater level of extension, which then tells the nervous system that the muscle can be strong and safe at that level of extension”. It is advised to warm up muscles before performing static stretches as the heat helps ease the CNS into the stretch.


Further Reading