Stretching has always been an important part of exercise and sport.
We stretch to gain flexibility, improve joint range of motion, better performance, address imbalances, reduce the risk or injury and muscle pain – right? Or have times changed?
Well, the answer is a complicated one. It only takes a quick Google search to find an overwhelming amount of information on the subject, much of it conflicting and confusing.
To try and make some sense of it, it’s important to understand the basics.
Improving range of movement (ROM) is generally considered essential to fitness and health as poor flexibility can result in poor posture, altered biomechanics and a risk of pain or injury.
Muscles tightness/shortness affects joint ROM. A muscle can be tight/short from an adapted postural position, scarring (from previous injuries), inflammation, spasm or contraction, or even just bad-luck genetics.
Stretching focusses on increasing the length of the muscle. It can be broken down into
Static – A specific position is held, with the target muscle on tension to a point of stretch, for 15-30 seconds and repeated 2-4 times.
Dynamic – The limb is moved through full range of motion (often mimicking the sports action movement) to end range and repeated.
Ballistic – Involves rapid alternating movements, bouncing at the end range. This stretching method is generally no longer recommended due to increased risk of injury.
PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) – A technique based on the neuromuscular mechanisms of autogenic inhibition, reciprocal inhibition, contract-relax and the gate control theory.
Over the last 10 years many studies have labelled stretching a ‘myth’, saying it adds little in terms of injury prevention or enhancing performance.
It’s important to understand that these studies vary hugely in population size, fitness and activity, type of stretch (most focus on static) and what muscle group is tested. As a result it’s difficult to form watertight conclusions from the data to date.
Harvard Medical School continues to advocate stretching 2-3 times a week to promote optimal flexibility and health as well as reducing pain and injury.
Anecdotally, most athletes perceive stretching to be of huge benefit. Yes, it helps their ROM, but it also feels GOOD!
Keeping in mind all this conflicting evidence, what should I be doing?
Before exercising, a warm-up is still considered important to prepare the body systems for upcoming exercise. It increases the body temperature, heart rate and blood flow. Ideally it should be about 10 minutes (for runners a walk or gentle jog is ideal).
Traditionally, static stretching followed, however, current evidence suggests static stretching before exercise does not prevent injuries and actually has the potential to be detrimental to muscle strength and performance. After activity is now considered the optimal time to include static stretching in your workout.
Interestingly, dynamic stretching pre-activity is not associated with detrimental strength or performance and can actually increase power – well-suited to jump/speed burst activity.
A safe and appropriate exercise plan usually includes a warm-up +/- dynamic stretching, exercise, cool down and finishes off with static stretching. However, it’s worthwhile assessing your individual sport and health needs and using your own intuition, rather than following a prescriptive stretching plan.
These guidelines will help you stretch safely and effectively:
- Focus on symmetry (from one leg/arm to the other), not necessarily maximal flexibility
- Don’t consider stretching a warm-up, and never stretch a cold muscle
- Utilise static stretching at the end or a workout after cool down, dynamic stretching at the beginning of a workout, after warm-up
- Hold each static stretch for 15-30 seconds, repeat 2-4 times
- Aim for a feeling of muscle tension when stretching, not pain
- Ease into each stretch, don’t bounce or force
- Make sure your stretches are sports-specific – for running include hip flexors, gluteals, hamstrings, quadraceps, ITB, gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles)
- Be cautious stretching an injured muscles or area affected by a chronic condition – symptoms could be exacerbated by stretching
- Trial different stretching regimes and find out what works best for you