Article by Sarah Al-Khayyal
Photo by Lisa Haefner Photo
If you’re A.D.D. or just hate reading, skip to the end for the TL;DR. This is a pretty lengthy one.
Along with the increasing popularity of strength sports has come a widespread obsession with mobility. Becoming a Supple Leopard, Mobility WOD, CrossFit Mobility certifications, etc. etc. etc. And almost everyone jumps on board without a second thought! It seems intuitive that stretching and flexibility are good for you, and generally speaking they are—but believe it or not, there is such a thing as too much mobility.
I firmly believe in context dependency, and I stand against cookie cutter anything. Any intelligent person will recognize the faults of sweeping generalizations and catch-all solutions. So when it comes to mobility, be a skeptic before you decide to spend an hour everyday stretching and rolling around on lacrosse balls. Because CONTEXT MATTERS. There is no one-size-fits-all, universal approach to mobility and recovery that is right for everyone. Your goals, your physiology, and your sport all compound (with several other factors) to dictate how much mobility work you should be doing and when.
So what is it with this mobility craze anyhow? You’ve probably heard time and time again that you should stretch before and after exercise to improve performance and reduce risk of injury. But how much reputable science is this claim actually based on?
Essentially none. Here’s what the science does say.
Stretching and Performance
Several studies suggest that pre-exercise stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance—what some refer to as “stretch induced strength loss.” The causation of this effect is not clear; some suggest neural impairments, while others suggest mechanical factors. Additionally it has been suggested that stretching regimens essentially place muscles into a fatigue-like state prior to the initiation of exercise.
This is not to say that all stretching will reduce muscular endurance for all types of physical activity. This is to say that timing matters. In contrast to acute sessions of stretching immediately before exercise, regular long term stretching may be beneficial depending on your sport or choice of physical activity. According to the science it’s either slightly beneficial or doesn’t have a negative impact, but nothing groundbreaking that will make you a significantly better athlete.
Stretching as Injury Prevention
I’ll keep this section short and just quote Phil Page’s 2012 study: “Stretching has not been shown to be effective at reducing the incidence of overall injuries.” Boom.
However if you’re already injured, depending on the individual and the specific injury, stretching can be effectively prescribed as part of rehabilitation regimes.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
Essentially all of the aforementioned studies involved static stretching, so it follows that that static stretching is scientifically associated with strength and performance deficits. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, has been shown in some cases to improve dynamometer-measured power, along with jumping and running performance (intnatl journal of sports physical therapy).
When it comes to increasing ROM prior to exercise, static and dynamic warm-up stretches are equally effective—however as we have already established, static stretching prior to exercise is associated with diminished strength and performance. So if you simply wish to increase your ROM, sure, static stretching works. But if you’re about to lift or do a MetCon, static stretching isn’t your best bet. Instead, opt for dynamic stretches to reduce stiffness and increase ROM.
How much mobility is too much mobility?
Here is where your sport or exercise of choice really comes into play. If your sport requires extreme flexibility (e.g. gymnastics, dance) obviously you need to be really freakin’ flexible. Your necessary joint ROM is going to be much greater than, say, a powerlifter’s. If your sport does not require extreme flexibility (ahem, I’m looking at you, powerlifters) you do not need the flexibility of a gymnast! In fact, there’s a solid chance that if you’re hyper-mobile, you aren’t helping, or are potentially even harming, your performance. This is because joint flexibility is inversely related to joint stability. So if your sport doesn’t demand more mobility, why would you sacrifice joint stability?
For any Oly lifters or CrossFitters out there reading this, you fall somewhere on the mobility continuum between gymnasts and powerlifters. The way to know if you’re mobile enough is to ask yourself if you can comfortably get into all of the positions required of you. If you can do things like front rack a barbell, hit a squat just below parallel, and get your spine into a neutral position at the start of your deadlift/snatch/clean, you’re probably plenty mobile. If this is you, trying to become more “flexy” is not in your favor.
To quote the extremely reputable strength coach Jordan Feigenbaum of Barbell Medicine,
“The notion that MORE mobility is better is almost certainly wrong without context. Mobility exists along a continuum. The more mobile you are (or need to be—gymnast, figure skater, dancer) the less stable you are for a given joint. Conversely, if your sport demands less mobility but more stability, e.g. American football, powerlifting, etc. then trying to increase mobility for the hell of it is likely not a good way to spend your precious time and training resources. In short, the mobility has to be appropriate for the tasks demanded and more or less than that is suboptimal.”
Sources and Further Reading:
Nelson, Arnold G., Kokkonen, Joke, and Arnall, David A. (2005) “Acute Muscle Stretching Inhibits Muscle Strength Endurance Performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(2), 338-343.
Page, Phil (2012) “Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation.” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1), 109-119.
Shrier, Ian (2004) “Does Stretching Improve Performance? A Systematic and Critical Review of the Literature.” Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(5), 267-273.
McNeal, Jeni R. and Sands, William, A. (2006) “Stretching for Performance Enhancement.” Current Sports Medicine Reports, 5(3), 141-146.
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