"Do I really need to stretch? I keep getting advice that I have to stretch properly before exercise. This really cuts into the already-limited free time in which I'm trying to fit more movement."
This question gets to the heart of a somewhat-heated debate within movement, fitness and performing arts communities. After decades of expert insistence on stretching, some research is pointing to the fact that unskilled and excessive stretching can cause harm, especially the most-commonly practiced static stretching. Static stretching can tax tendons and ligaments, which directly destabilizes the joints.
Since static stretching is done with the body at rest instead of in a dynamic state of motion, like so many of our modern practices, it lacks holistic context and separates form and function into two different categories. When joint function becomes unrelated to muscle fiber length, we're courting trouble. ("Contextual fitness" is a phrase that's coming up more and more, and which relates to natural movement practices, but that is for another post.)
I would like you to consider that direct initiation of gentle and progressive movement, performed with awareness, can replace the stretching with which you were "preparing" for said movement. They key is awareness.
In Part 2 of this answer I will address more specifically pathways to safe, joint-focused movement and share some useful keys to awareness. What I offer here is simply my own opinion, based on personal experience and extended observation of clients and students. I urge you to read from some of the resources I've collected below, do some experiments and reach your own conclusions.
Here's my rap:
It's possible, through mobilization of the joints, to "teach" the adjoining and related musculature to stretch appropriately, but the inverse is not true: just because we stretch our muscles does not mean that we are supporting healthy joint movement. Although muscle strains can be painful, damage to the joints is much more problematic and often longer-lasting. Therefore, I want to make it clear that I always prioritize functional joint movement over muscle length and extensibility.
What do I mean by joint movements "teaching" the musculature to stretch? Basically, this refers to the concept of proprioception (the neurological body-mind process of mapping one's position in space) and to the mechanisms through which the body responds to demands by growing new muscle cells and adjusting the contraction of those already in existence. Our bodies are shaped by our patterns of movement, which happen in full, three-dimensional context and are not static. The body adapts to the intensity, direction, duration and complexity of our movement by growing - among other things - new sarcomeres (the muscle fibers responsible for enabling "work"), new capillaries, new bone cells, new skin cells (callouses) and so on. This means that if you practice movement with awareness, (for example, not placing too heavy or rapid demands on your body) you gain the benefits of static stretching along with the full spectrum of other adaptations which stretching alone does not provide. And, you do it in real time, while exercising, not in a separate category of movement.
Let's say you wanted to stretch your posterior leg chain (calf and hamstring muscles) in preparation for a steep hike. Conventional wisdom might tell you to do a static stretch such as the one pictured here:
Not to pick on Marilyn, but, there are some problems here. Do you see what's going on? First, the all-important hip joint is not hingeing very deeply or functionally, but Marilyn is displacing that flexion into her upper back to "deepen the stretch." I see this stretch performed with a compensating flexed spine far more often than not. This can cause spinal compression and other issues. Second, should she succeed in cranking her torso all the way down to her legs, that doesn't guarantee that her legs (lovely as they are - I just really looked for the first time!) are adapted through use to climbing at an angle, or that her joints are both mobile and stable enough to support her body weight on inclined ground. Third, what about this stretch teaches the neural network to provide the kind of balance needed on steep slopes?
This example might seem a little silly, but seriously: this type of stretching is considered normal and is performed by people who are a) "doing the right thing" by stretching b) in a hurry to get moving c) lacking joint range of motion. This is not to demean forward bends or Marilyn's efforts, but simply to say that I believe a better movement you can do to adapt to a steep hike is this:
That's right, to prepare yourself to move, begin moving (with awareness) into the movement itself.
In this photo we see many of the things that stretching may hope to accomplish: lengthening of the posterior chain (calf stretch, hip extension, engagement of hamstrings in a lengthened state) and hingeing at the hip rather than the upper back. In fact, we could say that she is stretching. Additionally, we can see hingeing at the ankle, as well as weight-bearing and alignment challenges that will both strengthen and inform the whole organism, contributing balance and coordination. This is what I mean by the body in motion "teaching" itself.
I want to repeat that the key is really to support joint mobility, rather than to dismiss stretching or to say that it has no place.
My answer to the person who asked me "do I really have to stretch first?" is to experiment with beginning your exercise / movement with a slow, gentle, deep, joint-focused version of the activity you want to do. If little moments of stretching "intrude" (such as the calf stretch in the climbing example above,) savor them and make sure they are done in the context of whole-body movement, in gravity, and without an overly ambitious focus on muscle length. Report back!
Here are some resources for you to look at before we get to Part 2:
Some perspectives on intelligent stretching:
The Sock Doc, Steve Gangemi, weighs in (and you can find other links to this topic on his website):
An audio version of this conversation:
Sports Medicine paper: "....controversy remains about the best type of stretching for a particular goal or outcome." Ask yourself whether you just want increased range of motion in an abstract situation, or the ability and adaptation to actually move well.