Stretching The Truth About Stretching

So many people think they are stretching to improve flexibility or to prevent injury, when in fact they may not be doing either one!  There has been a lot of attention on this topic lately and you may be surprised to find the truth about stretching.

Traditionally, stretching has been performed along with a warm-up prior to exercise, in an attempt to prevent injury.  Also some may perform stretching after exercise to prevent soreness.  There is very little scientific evidence that stretching will prevent injuries, as most injuries are linked to muscle weaknesses and inadequate warm-up or aerobic conditioning.  There is also very little backing the theory that stretching can ease the soreness you feel 24-48 hours after a workout.

It is important that you look at your goals before you engage in a stretching program.  If you are an athlete participating in ballet or gymnastics, where flexibility is critical, stretching is very important.  But studies have shown that stretching actually decreases walking and running economy and may not be desirable for these activities.  In sports such as football, wrestling, or other activities that require joint stability, stretching may not be recommended at all.  Try telling that to the football coach who’s qualifications are a beer-belly and the fact that he played football 30 years ago!

If your goal is to improve your flexibility, or range-of-motion, it is important that you engage in a stretching program multiple times per week.  When stretching, you are not only stretching the muscle, but also the tendons that connect the muscles to your bones, and the collagen, which is a fairly tough connective tissue. A mild and comfortable stretch that many people perform may not be enough to actually gain flexibility with these strong tissues of the body.

Think of your tissues as a rubber band when you are stretching.  Your tissues have an elastic range where the tissue returns to its original shape/length when the stretch stops, just like when you stretch a rubber band a little bit.  You also have an elastic limit in which the tissue will not return to its original shape/length, as when you stretch a rubber band to it’s limit.  And lastly, you have what is called a plastic range that goes from your elastic limit to the point where the tissue ruptures (ouch!), and in this range you have permanent tissue deformation.

Enough tissue-talk, here is what I think is best for your stretching routine:

  • stretching should be performed after warming up, as warm tissue stretches much easier.
  • stretching can be done before exercise if indicated, but many experts including myself only recommend stretching after exercise.
  • perform slow but slightly aggressive stretches, held for 30 seconds and repeated up to 3 times.
  • to increase flexibility, perform 3-5 sessions each week.
  • no bouncing, or quick ballistic movements while stretching.
  • try to relax while stretching, despite the discomfort.  If your muscles “guard”, or contract to prevent a stretch, you will not be stretching the muscle.
  • remember a proper warm up, adequate strength, and good cardiovascular conditioning is the best defense for preventing injury.

I am sure many of you may be surprised by some of the information I have shared today.  There are many misconceptions in the world of fitness and I hope I have cleared up the any on the topic of stretching.

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