A very common frustration I hear from clients is, "I've been stretching loads, but I'm still tight".
On the other side of the spectrum, I've often heard people either dismissing the need for a massage or defending their desire for one, saying "I should probably just stretch more".
Early on in my career as a personal trainer, I made the decision not to incorporate stretching into client sessions. The reason was a pragmatic one: it takes a lot of time to go through all relevant stretches, and the benefits of stretching sporadically were equivocal at best (and still are), so the ratio of time and effort to reward was just not there in most cases.
But before I go any further into what I think about stretching and why, it might be useful to go over a few definitions and clear up some common misconceptions.
Types of stretching
There are several types of stretching you may have encountered:
passive stretching, where you go into a set position and stay there for at least 30 seconds and up to several minutes; like a quad (thigh) stretch where you pull your heel to your bum and hold it there
dynamic stretching, where you move into and out of a stretch fluidly without stopping; like kicking your heel up to your bum as you jog on the spot, or swinging your leg forwards and backwards
ballistic stretching, where you "bounce" past the end range of a stretch; you most commonly see this when people can't touch their toes and they use momentum to try and get a little further - the main difference between ballistic and dynamic stretching is ballistic stretching involves a much smaller range of motion
PNF stretching, where a trainer/therapist/training partner takes you into a position and then applies light resistance as you push back against them (so making you perform an isometric contraction, where your muscles are working but you're not moving), then you relax and the trainer/therapist/partner pushes you further into the stretch
Probably the biggest misconception about stretching is that you are making a muscle longer by stretching it. If this were the case, gymnasts and yoga practitioners would either be very tall or very floppy or both (also not strictly accurate... but you get the idea). When you stretch, what you are in fact doing is encouraging the muscle tissues to elongate to their natural resting length.
Another common misconception is that we are stretching muscles when we take a joint to the end of its range of motion; in fact we are applying that stretch to all the connective tissues (such as tendons and ligaments, joint capsules, and all the fascia interwoven throughout, not to mention the skin), so resistance to the stretch could be from any of those and little to do with the muscle at all.
Flexibility vs. mobility
Finally, it is always worth reiterating that flexibility and mobility are similar but different concepts. Flexibility is the passive range of motion through a joint and mobility is the active range of motion through a joint; so if you're lying on your back hugging your knees in to your chest, that's passive, so you'd be limited by your flexibility, whereas if you were trying to bring your knees to your chest without using your hands, that would be more of a test of mobility.
If you just tried that, you'll have noticed some muscles working to try and get your knees as close to your chest as you could get them by using your hands. That's the difference: mobility requires strength.
Flexibility and mobility are interconnected, but separate. If I lack flexibility in my hip, I'm going to be limited in how much mobility I can achieve. But simply improving my flexibility by working on passive stretches isn't going to improve my mobility.
You might already be able to see where I'm going with this. The general answer is "If you want to improve your mobility, you need to stretch more but you also need to work on strength". But that doesn't help you with your specific body and your specific goals.
Of course I can't speak to every readers' individual goals (and starting points) here, but here are some general thoughts on the matter:
Yes, many of us can benefit from improving our passive range of motion, but anecdotally, I would say that most of us have some work to do on our mobility within the range of motion we already have. In other words, we should build strength into the movements we already have, before adding new movements and then strengthening those.
The reason this is important is that, as always, there is a Goldilocks zone between too much flexiblity and too little. Most of us know that being "too stiff" is not comfortable or helpful, but many people don't realise that being overly flexible is also not a happy place for the body. Flexibility without strength equals instability, and the body responds to instability by creating stiffness out of what it can: since it can't grow new, healthy muscle and connective tissue just out of nowhere, it will "lock up" the existing structures; so an attempt to develop more flexibility without a corresponding level of strength (i.e. mobility) can result in more tightness.
If, like me, you are a fan of analogies, let's use the tried-and-tested bamboo versus oak: the oak is big and strong but gets blown over in heavy winds, whereas the strong and flexible (some might say mobile...) bamboo bends with the wind and survives the storm. Now if instead of bamboo you had a bed of tulips, they're likely to get ripped out and snapped and crushed by heavy winds. So to protect them, what are your options? Maybe you can build a sturdy wooden box around them... or maybe pour some concrete over them? Clearly I'm not a gardener, but I can't imagine any other scenario in which those tulips survive the season - unless they're lucky enough not to encounter a storm in their time.
So, yes, maybe you're very flexible and you have no issues. Maybe you're stiff as an oak and have no issues. I deeply hope that is the case for all of you! But you're at the mercy of the weather (not literally, thankfully).
So... do you need to stretch more?
If you feel you are adequately strong through your existing range of motion, but maybe you can't do some of the flashy yoga poses you see on Instagram, we refer to your goals and what you're willing to do to achieve them. I underlined that bit because although it's always important, I feel it's particularly relevant to stretching.
I'm not here to write a meta-analysis on the benefits of various stretching protocols, so all I'll say is that to increase your flexibility through passive stretching (which, arguably, is the way you would target all the the tissues involved in range of motion: muscles, tendons, ligaments, and all the other fascia intertwined in everything) requires a lot of time and - more importantly - consistency. What can take weeks or months of daily practice to achieve can be almost entirely reversed in a few days without stretching. So my question here would be: what was the purpose of doing all that stretching in the first place?
The thing about long, passive stretching - the sort that actually affects the connective tissue in the longer term - is that it (in very simplified terms) "switches off" the structures being stretched, which is why you don't do it in a warm-up before a training session or competition. Arguably, you probably wouldn't even want to do those long, passive stretches before heading back out into the world where you might have to pick up kids and run for trains and do anything else that requires a bit of reactivity (which requires a certain degree of stiffness) from your muscles and connective tissues. So ideally, you're committing some time at the end of the day to fit these in - and we're talking at least 90s if not up to several minutes per stretch - which is a big ask for most of us.
Mobility, on the other hand, can be integrated into a training session. It's perfect as part of a warm-up, but could be inserted into any part of a session. A lot of my own mobility work gets done piecemeal throughout the day; a few shoulder rotations while I wait for this client, a few hip rotations while I watch this webinar, some foot exercises whilst on the phone. And because you're building strength through that range of motion, you're more likely to keep moving through that range in your training and daily activities (obviously, that highly depends on what your training and daily activities entail, and what your range of motion is!), so you have a better chance of maintaining your active range of motion once you've acquired it.
There is very much a time and place for stretching (i.e. flexibility training), but for most of us I would recommend identifying a particular area that really requires it - lack of flexibility in the hamstrings, for example, can quite often contribute to lower back tightness and inability to get into certain positions to target lower abdominal and hip flexor strength - and prioritising mobility for the rest.
(One last thing to throw into the mix, in case this wasn't all confusing enough: passive, held stretches may have other effects on our various tissues and systems outside of "training" goals - the latest I have heard is a possible interaction with our immune system, and I don't think it will come as a surprise to anyone that holding a long, passive stretch will have a calming effect on the nervous system - so make of that what you will, and prioritise accordingly; maybe you're working on mobility a majority of the time, and on your recovery days or anytime you're feeling a bit ragged, you flip the ratio towards flexibility and passive stretching... just a thought!)
As always, remember goals and what is required to achieve them are fluid and changeable, so don't be afraid to adjust and recalibrate whenever you feel you're not getting what you need from your movement practice!