To Stretch, Or Not To Stretch

        After teaching pre-workout stretching for years...

A recent study challenged my old ideas of how to stretch before exercise. Stretching is a natural and instinctive activity, We do it without thinking, just like our pet dogs and cats. Stretching happens when a specific skeletal muscle (or muscle group) is deliberately pulled, often by abduction from the torso, in order to improve the muscle's felt elasticity. Stretching can be counterproductive when performed incorrectly. There are many techniques for stretching in general, some techniques may be ineffective or detrimental, even to the point of causing damage to the tendons, ligaments and muscle fiber. It seems like guidelines are changing daily on who needs to do what kind of stretching, and when it should be individualized, depending on your exercise or sport, according to current research on the subject. Increasing flexibility through stretching has been one of the basic tenets of physical fitness, and it's common for athletes to be seen stretching before and after exercise in order to reduce injury.

Now yoga, involves the stretching of major muscle groups, some of which require a high level of flexibility. Be aware though, some research indicates stretching may also cause ischemia in muscles, that reduces oxygen levels and the ability to remove metabolic waste. When we have higher levels of metabolic waste, our bodies create a catalyst that contracts muscles. This may cause muscle injury during our events. In some cases stretching predisposes individuals to fatigue quicker than individuals who did not stretch. A recent study performed at UNLV examined how two kinds of stretching affect muscles used in different physical activities. Twenty-four healthy college students first warmed up with five minutes of treadmill walking, followed by one of three options. Three 30-second periods of static (the "stretch-and-hold" style) stretching. Then the same three 30-second periods of ballistic stretching (where you bounce back and forth between a starting and end point). Then no stretching before engaging in a variety of performance-related activities examining quad and hamstring strength, lower body power and vertical jump, which are important to different degrees in a variety of sports. There was 48 hours between testing days and the order of the stretching alternatives was carefully rotated. As it turned out, for sports that involve vertical jumping (for instance, basketball and volleyball) and quadriceps or hamstring strength (soccer, tennis, running and biking), it won't really matter what kind of stretching is done.

Neither version helped or harmed performance. What researchers did find, however, was that for sports that involved speed and leg muscle power like sprinting 800 meters or less, for example. both forms of stretching negatively impacted performance. This is a finding that may turn out to be significant, for athletes in sports that demand bursts of power, such as track or football. William Holcomb, PhD, ATC/L, CSCS, of the department of kinesiology and nutrition sciences UNLV. said recently in an interview,

"So it is simple, Avoid static stretching prior to performance if speed is going to be a factor," whereas "dynamic", also called "ballistic stretching, should be a part of your warm-up for any athletic activities that require range of motion." For athletes who enjoy both kinds of stretching (that's me), he recommends dynamic stretching and a warm-up beforehand, plus a cool-down that includes static stretching afterward.

I couldn't agree more. Also, in a recent paper that was published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, reviewed the many research studies published on the topic and selected only the papers that used rigorous scientific . Researchers found that only 106 of the 4,559 total studies published on the topic met appropriate scientific criteria set forth for inclusion in their study. Once they selected the best studies for review, researchers compared the studies to determine if there were any differences between them that may have contributed to the different conclusions about static stretching and performance. These factors included stretch duration, muscle groups tested, and the specific strength/power test used to evaluate performance (e.g., vertical jump vs. strength test).

Researchers found that 50% of the studies which met their criteria reported significant reductions in strength/power after static stretching. After looking at the length of the static stretch, they found that nearly all the studies which used static stretches held for less than 30 seconds reported no significant reduction in power/strength performance afterwards. As the duration of stretch increased from 30-45 seconds, some of the studies showed decreases in performance. However, when static stretch duration increased to more than 45 seconds, reductions in performance were consistently reported. Researchers did not find any differences with regard to the specific muscle groups tested after static stretching. Also, power, strength, and speed movements were all negatively affected as stretch duration increased. The results of this comprehensive paper suggest that static stretches held less than 30 seconds do not appear to produce significant decreases in power, strength or speed. As the duration of the stretch increases to 60 seconds or longer, moderate declines in performance are more likely. So over static stretching may not increase range of motion, but rather increase individual stretch tolerance, becoming detrimental to athletic performance. I personally like to do a brief (15-30 second) static stretch after my dynamic warm up for muscles that still feel tight prior to starting my balance and core workout.


Strength loss and stretching are two specialties of Malachy McHugh, PhD, director of research, Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital,  basically agrees with the findings, he said, adding that he believes that what an athlete does to warm up and stretch should be specific to his/her choice of sport or activity. Though the UNLV study was about stretching, Dr. McHugh pointed to the fact that a five-minute warm-up preceded each stretching protocol. Warming up raises body temperature and increases blood and fuel flow to muscles so they are ready for use in exercise. This may be even more critical than stretching, Dr. McHugh's said. "The most important preparation activity for a sport is to start with low-intensity exercise simulating the activity you are about to perform," he explained. "Whether or not you add stretches depends on what the activity/sport is." So if you're not a competitive athlete, what does all this mean to you? Well try starting with these tips before you workout:
  • Warm up your muscles activly before any kind of stretching or workout.
  • Dynamic stretching helps prepare muscles for all types of activity.
  • Don't do static stretching before your sport if your you need power and speed.
So leave the long static stretches for yoga class, and the deep flexibility for Pilates class. My advise is to do some dynamic movement before your event and a little static stretching after. Achieving good range of motion of your joints should be the goal of your pre-exercise activity. Whether you do only a gentler version of your activity or also add sport-appropriate stretching depends in part on your activity, and also what feels good to you. Remember over-stretching or stretching to a point where pain is felt may be detrimental. Remember we're all different. The size and strength of our levers (arms & legs) differ greatly. These are some guidelines, but remember you have the final say. Good Luck...

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