What is stretch therapy?
Stretch therapy encompasses a wide range of techniques, including foam rolling , massage, myofascial release, percussion massage (massage gun), and active range of motion movements, in addition to traditional passive stretches.
Stretch therapy is the scientific application of these techniques to treat certain physical problems associated with tight muscles and restricted joints. When performed properly, stretch therapy can help prevent injuries and improve performance.
While you’re likely familiar with some of the techniques used in stretch therapy, the proper application of stretching for maximum benefit requires more than idly reaching for your toes before hitting the treadmill.
The science of stretch therapy
Most stretching protocols are primarily aimed at increasing the range of motion of a joint, and the overall goal is to improve movement patterns involving that joint.
While many factors affect movement patterns, range of motion is a major one. Improved range of motion in joints generally facilitates better movement overall.
Increasing the flexibility of the tissues around a joint will increase its range of motion. These tissues include muscle, tendon, and fascia tissues. Each of these tissues has different properties. However, the flexibility of each can be improved with various stretch therapy techniques.
Muscle flexibility is affected by several factors. Overall, neural signals to the muscle tissue play a significant role in your muscles’ ability to completely lengthen or release.
Muscles increase their flexibility in response to techniques like stretching and foam rolling, largely due to the stimulation of receptors that tell your muscles to relax or contract.
The stimulation of these receptors leads to the relaxation of your muscle fibers in the short term. Over time, stretch therapy protocols cause more permanent elongation of your muscles through changes to the resting length of the tissue itself.
Tendon and fascia flexibility
Tendons are th e tissues that connect your bone to your muscles. The tendons connect to another tissue called fascia, which surrounds the outside of your muscles, as well as sections within your muscles.
In most cases, a stiff tendon is a good thing. Still, sometimes excessive tightness in the tendons and the fascia connective tissue surrounding your muscles can restrict the normal range of motion.
Techniques such as massage and stretching can increase the extendibility of both the tendons and fascia in the long term.
The research on various stretching techniques is ongoing and occasionally conflicting or inconclusive. Yet overall, studies suggest that the methods found in stretch therapy improve muscle and connective tissue flexibility when properly and consistently applied (4Trusted Source).
Short-term vs. long-term flexibility
Stretch therapy techniques increase flexibility in both the short and long term. The range of motion in a given area typically increases immediately after a stretch therapy session.
Short-term increased range of motion can improve movement in the following training session, but it will dissipate if stretch therapy ceases.
However, if you continually perform stretch therapy two to three times per week, the increases in range of motion become more permanent. Connective tissue structures and resting muscle length will adapt to the stretch therapy and maintain improved flexibility.
The benefits of stretch therapy
The overall goal of stretch therapy is to treat muscle tightness, joint imbalances, and tissue restrictions that cause movement distortions, aches and pains, and increased risk of injury.
Over time, stretch therapy improves range of motion, leading to improved movement patterns and fewer injuries.
Regardless of your occupation or preferred fitness activity, you likely engage in repetitive movements that lead to imbalances in muscle length and joint range of motion over time.
Additionally, injuries — whether current or former — can lead to altered movement patterns that cause similar restrictions, as well as further injury down the road.
If not addressed, these imbalances in your tissues will affect your movement and lead to poor movement quality, increased injury risk, decreased performance, and pain.
The effects of muscle imbalance compound over time and affect people of all fitness levels. The good news is that stretch therapy is effective for many groups of people, including older individuals, younger individuals, and athletes.
Research has shown that older adults can improve their range of motion through a variety of techniques used in stretch therapy (1).
Additional research found that younger athletes who perform proper stretch therapy techniques can reduce their risk of non-contact injury during training and competition (2Trusted Source).
That said, individual responses to stretching vary, and your specific athletic and medical history may affect the result of a specific stretching method (3Trusted Source).
Still, regardless of your fitness goals, age, or overall lifestyle, stretch therapy techniques are likely to increase your range of motion, improve your performance, and reduce your overall risk of injury.