Stretching myths: busted

Exercise has always been plagued by myths, and there is no reason to believe that someday we’ll be free of them.

Exercise has always been plagued by myths, and there is no reason to believe that someday we’ll be free of them. These myths are quite easily perpetuated through repetition, anecdotes and pseudoscience-laden verbal virtuosity from Internet forum fitness gurus, but once established they are nearly impossible to erase. Our best hope to free the general public from these incorrect beliefs is to employ the very same methods of repetition, which is why I now find myself once again writing another article about exercise myths. Am I banging my head against a brick wall? Maybe, but perhaps I can tip the scales back in favor of reality instead of mythology. Let’s take a look at three common myths.


Myth: It is important to stretch prior to exercising

We’ve all heard this since our very first PE class. We’ve long been led to believe, by coaches and trainers, that thoroughly stretching before physical activity is an absolute necessity. To not do so would be to invite serious injury upon oneself. The only problem is, it isn’t true! In the past decade or so, a rather formidable body of research has shown that the typical static stretching many engage in prior to exercise does not reduce the risk of injury during physical activity. In fact, some research even suggests that excessive stretching may actually temporarily weaken the muscle groups that are stretched.

So, how should one apply this information? For starters, don’t waste too much time stretching before workouts. Instead, focus on warm-up sets, mobility and building up to working intensity. A bit of light stretching is fine; it may even have some psychological benefits if it is already a habit (i.e. stretching can be a mental trigger that enhances focus for some trainees), but don’t overdo it. Excessive stretching may weaken the muscles and result in a less effective training session. If flexibility is your goal, save the heavy duty stretching for after the workout.


Myth: Weight training reduces flexibility

This could be seen as a partial myth. It is certainly true that if one gets muscular enough they are going to be limited by their own size. However, this has more to do with large amounts of muscle getting in the way of movements, rather than an actual decrease in muscle flexibility. Most drug-free trainees will never grow muscular enough to warrant worrying about this. The truth is that weight training performed by utilizing a full range-of-motion will not reduce general flexibility. In fact, some research suggests that it may even slightly improve flexibility. There we go—one more excuse for avoiding weight training goes right down the drain.


Myth: Using high repetitions will “tone” muscles

When it comes to weight training, one is either building size or strength or they aren’t. While there is nothing inherently wrong with using higher repetitions (generally considered to be 12 reps or more), there also isn’t anything magical about it. The appearance of “muscle tone” is brought about through the combination of muscular development and low amounts of body fat. (The less body fat one has, the more pronounced the appearance of the muscles). Therefore, trainees should seek to combine resistance training that maximizes their muscular development while also utilizing dietary strategies that reduce body fat.

In the interest of full disclosure and fairness, there is a good deal of debate surrounding strategies for enhancing muscular “tone.” However, nearly all training professionals have abandoned the idea that use of high repetitions will make a specific muscle group appear more defined. Most of the debate nowadays relates to nutritional strategies and cardiovascular exercise, or at least from the reading I’ve done. ?