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Do We Need to Stretch to Improve Mobility?

Range of motion is often considered a key characteristic of musculoskeletal health. It is not as important as strength, muscle mass, or cardiovascular capacity (VO2 max) for overall health (risk for chronic disease and all-cause mortality) but certain ranges of motion are needed for functional tasks.

Range of motion does play a role in performance and injury prevention, however, there are no universal rules that apply to all people. The demands of various sports differ greatly. There are many ways to move and achieve athletic goals. Injuries are multi-factorial. All of these factors make it impossible to choose an ideal range of motion for any sport or task. Regardless, it is common to see physios addressing mobility concerns in the clinic, and there are multiple approaches that can yield success.

Over the past few decades, we have started to compile more research on the effects of stretching on range of motion along with the impact of range of motion on health and performance. In both cases, the data is inconclusive. The success of stretching, like any exercise, is dose-dependent. Stretching, however, is not the only method for improving mobility.

This systematic review and meta-analysis compared chronic resistance training with controls and stretch training for improving range of motion. The authors included 55 articles in the analysis, however, only 7 compared RT with stretching. Overall, the data showed both stretching and strength training are superior to controls for improving mobility (moderate effect size of 0.73) but there is no difference between the active interventions. Does this mean stretching can be ignored and mobility can be improved strictly with RT? Not necessarily. With only 7 studies, we can’t draw widespread conclusions. Having only seven studies limits our ability to assess differing dosages, populations, and body regions. What we can conclude is both stretching, and RT can significantly improve range of motion. Which you choose depends on the patient, the goals, and the stage of progression.

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