Updated: Oct 11, 2019
I use to stretch religiously after workouts for the purpose of minimizing soreness. This is still a common idea.
Studies have shown that post workout stretching doesn’t actually affect post workout soreness.
Author and Researcher, Alex Hutchinson cites a study done back in 1986 in Amsterdam, where they tested muscle soreness days after a workout.
Participants performed strenuous exercises with one leg and not the other. One of the tests used electrodes to record electrical activity in each pair of legs, and no soreness was found.
This ended the 1960’s theory of delayed onset muscle soreness. The theory is that that after heavy exercise, damaged muscles go into spasm, decreased blood flow and caused discomfort. This is when the stretching theory came to life to help offset the hypothetical spasms. Sounds logical.
Studies have been done since then—one in 2009 with Australian rowers. One group rested for 15 minutes following a stair workout, while the others stretched for 15 minutes; a week later they switched. Over the three days following the workout, they found no difference in strength, soreness or blood levels of creatine kinase (marker of muscle damage).
So it seems based off studies, stretching doesn’t actually help post workout soreness.
What good is stretching then?
Stretching might not play a role in decreasing soreness, but it does still affect muscle flexibility and joint mobility. This is important when you’re trying to minimize injury and ease of exercise flow upon performing. Stretching after a workout has also shown optimal results for improving flexibility. I know when I perform yoga regularly I can more easily, get into squat and deadlift positions—and lift heavier (research doesn't support stretching = being able to lift more heavier weights).
So, how do you decrease soreness?
Light activity to the muscles helps blood flow increase in those areas, speeding up recovery. If clients come in with sore legs, I will get them to walk on the treadmill or bike lightly for 5 minutes, foam roll and follow gentle leg and hips stretches. This typically also relieves the soreness. Sleep/rest/time is also important.
So if you’re spending a lot of time after a workout stretching, that’s great—just don’t be surprised if you’re still feeling sore days later. Add some light activity and gentle dynamic movements to speed up that recovery process.
Alex Hutchinson’s book, “Which Comes First: Cardio or Weights?”