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The Truth About Stretching

by Phil Campbell - Ready, Set, Go! Synergy Fitness for Time Crunched Adults

A three year old study about stretching is getting cited in many articles today. And the conclusions reached by some writers may be harmful to your health!

Is stretching before exercise harmful?

Some recent articles have made stretching before exercise out to be a time-waster, not needed, and even harmful. This is not true. In fact, there's a 2003 study that evaluates all of the research on stretching. Researchers conclude:

"Due to the paucity, heterogeneity and poor quality of the available studies no definitive conclusions can be drawn as to the value of stretching for reducing the risk of exercise-related injury."

(The efficacy of stretching for prevention of exercise-related injury: a systematic review of the literature, 2003, Weldon) here

The Stretching Study in Question

The study generating all the hoopla was performed by the Kapooka Health Centre, New South Wales, Australia on 1,538 army recruits. It's a creditable study to show the occurrence lower limb injury on a group of young army recruits. Here is what the researchers actually concluded:

A typical muscle stretching protocol performed during preexercise warm-ups does not produce clinically meaningful reductions in risk of exercise-related injury in army recruits. Fitness may be an important, modifiable risk factor.
(A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury, 2000, Pope) here

The statement, "Fitness may be an important, modifiable risk factor" is very important. It simply means that age, weight, and conditioning of the study subjects may be an important factor facilitating the injuries in this study.

Appropriate conclusion

Based on the way some have written about this study, it's okay to run a 100 meter sprint full speed without stretching beforehand. Now, this may be possible for a small number of lean, young army recruits in New South Wales. However, does anyone believe that a powerful, muscled-up NFL running back, or middle-aged and older adults can run a sprint cold without leaving both hamstrings laying on the track? Don't think so...

Use Common Sense
...and the full body of research

Think about it; if an out-of-shape couch potato (with just enough muscle to change channels) performs high-intensity, fast-twitch exercise, he may get injured ... pre-stretched or not.

This is why researchers in 2003 concluded, after researching all of the studies on this subject, "no definitive conclusions can be drawn..." In short, there needs to be a body of research based on age, weight, conditioning, and the study needs to be performed for the specific sport and type of exercise before life-changing conclusions are drawn.

 

The truth about stretching

First, yoga is great for you! Don't let some writer using sensationalism to sell a story to a magazine deter you from stretching.

Researchers show that prolonged stretching (in the form of yoga) with moderate aerobic exercise and diet control will reduce cholesterol and significantly reverse hardening of the arteries (20 percent regression) in adults with proven coronary atherosclerotic disease.

After one year in a yoga program, participants lost weight, reduced cholesterol, and improved their exercise capacity, (Retardation of coronary atherosclerosis with yoga lifestyle intervention, 2000, Manchanda).

If you have time for yoga class, or your martial arts training emphasizes stretching, that's great. Keep it up! But if you're not attending karate or yoga classes, then the Ready Set Go Fitness 10-Minute Stretching Routine may be for you.

Use dynamic stretching before games

Researchers show that athletes should not perform prolonged stretching routines before playing a game because it temporarily slows muscle activation. Dynamic stretching - Neck Circles, Arm Swings, Knee Rotations - may be better for pre-competition.

Prolonged stretching (stretch-and-hold "static" stretching) slightly decreases strength for up to an hour after stretching by slightly impairing muscle activation. (Reduced strength after passive stretch of the human plantar flexors, 2000, Fowles).

Static stretching builds flexibility and should be performed regularly, just not immediately before a big game.

Stretching as a Warm-up
 

Since warming up prior to anaerobic training is an absolute rule - never to be broken - stretching can be combined (multi-tasked) as part of the warm-up.

The goal of the warm-up is to get the blood flowing and raise body temperature (one degree) prior to high-intensity workouts and athletic competitions.

Stretch-hold Position

Gains in flexibility are dependent on the duration of stretch-hold position, and researchers show the best stretch-hold position (for time-spent) is 30 seconds. (The effect of time on static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles, 1994, Bandy). "Best" means optimal results for time-spent. You can get positive results with 2 minute stretch-holds, but 30 seconds yields positive benefits.

Remember to move slowly into the fully stretched-out position and hold it 30 seconds. Also, move just as slow out-of the the stretch-hold position. This type of stretching produces gains in flexibility, but it can cause injury, if you don't listen to your body and move in slow motion.

 

The take home

1. The best way to build flexibility is static stretching. And using the 30 second stretch-hold is shown to produce great results.

2. Static stretching can be used as part of a warm-up for training, however, static stretching will slightly slow you down for an hour afterwards so examine your training goals.

3. Dynamic stretching (arm swings, hip rotations, toe touches) will aid in the warm up process by increasing flexion in the joints and increasing body temperature. This method is preferred before athletic competition.

Have a great day!

Phil Campbell, M.S., M.A., FACHE
Author Ready, Set, GO! Synergy Fitness

National Institutes of Health research cited in newsletter,
Research Summary 1

Research Summary 2
Research Summary 3
Research summary 4
Research Summary 5

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