Static stretching is a popular tool for pain relief and mobility training. Is it effective? If so, when is it applicable? We have already discussed the important role that functional movement plays in injury management, and this article will likewise discuss static stretching through that lens.
It is helpful to first differentiate the effects of static stretching and functional movement. Static stretching is a passive method of lengthening muscle by means of holding a specific position for a length of time. This lengthening of the muscle tissue results in a temporary increase in range of motion. Functional movement has the potential to lengthen muscle while strengthening it through the range of motion that is trying to be achieved. This is often accomplished by performing a foundational exercise that places emphasis on mobility. Think of the difference between a seated toe touch and a Romanian deadlift. A seated toe touch will lengthen the hamstrings, but a Romanian deadlift will both stretch and strengthen them. Developing strength in the newly acquired range of motion is key to maintaining long term mobility.
However, that is not to say that static stretching has absolutely no utility in pain management or mobility training. There may be instances in which a person’s flexibility (the ability for a given muscle to lengthen) is so limiting that it prevents them from performing the functional exercise properly. Using the example given above, it may be appropriate for a person to take just a few minutes to stretch their hamstrings before performing the Romanian deadlift. Functional movement should take precedent, but some purposeful stretching may aid in the effectiveness of the exercise. (Pro tip: warm muscles are easier and safer to lengthen than cold muscles. If you do choose to stretch, make sure to first get your body temperature up by performing some light conditioning. Hopping on a rower or bike for a couple of minutes is always a good option.)
There is also something to be said about just feeling good, and if static stretching helps you do that, then right on. Static stretching by itself, however, is not an effective injury or pain management strategy. Strength must be developed within the new range of motion, or it will be quickly lost. Place emphasis on pain-free functional movement and if you like to stretch, go right ahead!