Stretching: Is it Helping or Hurting You?
Stretching undoubtedly has many benefits in regards to athletics, weight training, injury prevention and rehabilitation. In athletics, it can assist in preparing the body for the demands of whatever specific sport you are playing. In weight training, it can assist in allowing the body to be put in the correct positioning to achieve effective range of motion (ROM) in many different movements. It can assist in injury prevention, in that when the body is put in these correct positions, the movement is natural to every individual and abnormal biomechanics and compensatory patterns are unnecessary. Finally during rehab, it is EXTREMELY important because regardless of injury, restoring ROM is almost always the initial step on the road to return to sport/activity.
The issues I very commonly see with athletes and resistance training athletes are the timing of the stretching, the wrong types of stretching being used for certain activities and stretches being used that can actually increase the risk of injury.
Historically studies have proven that stretching increases performance, alleviates muscle soreness, increases flexibility, and reduces injury risk. Current research recommends a few minutes of light physical activity and stretching to prepare the body for exercise. Recently however, studies have shown that while stretching successfully increases range of motion (ROM), it may cause a detrimental effect on performance. Three common types of stretching athletes use everyday include static stretching, ballistic stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation or PNF.
· Static stretching consists of stretching a target muscle to a point of tension and holding it isometrically for a standard period of time
· PNF stretching involves intermittent bouts of contractions and stretches to a target muscle group in order to improve flexibility
· Ballistic stretching consists of forceful bouncing movements of a muscle past its normal range of motion and returning to starting position before the muscle has time to relax in the extended ROM
I am assuming many of you already know what these are because they are used frequently by athletes and gym-goers of every level. Let's talk about the mistakes I see being made that I eluded to earlier.
Athletes have always been told to stretch before and after activity, whether it is soccer, track and field or football. You still see the traditional stretching lines at every Friday night football game if you are there early enough. Well the problem is if you stretch a target muscle group first and it hasn't been properly warmed up through a dynamic warm-up and sport-specific activities, you could actually be increasing the risk of injury by stretching. When you stretch a muscle tissue that hasn't been properly warmed up, that extra stress on the tissue can be detrimental. Without a dynamic and sport-specific warm-up, the tissue temperature hasn't increased, the elasticity of the muscle is still low and the compliance of contraction patterns and overall function are still low as well. So if you are a coach, player or parent, do a little research and possibly change some things. The biggest problem with sports medicine is, the research is abundant, but the act of it being put to use is lacking right now. I encourage all of you to reach out and I can give you a list of sources you can use to look into it for yourself.
Wrong Stretching for Different Activities
Another thing that we as a health care community have gotten into a bad habit of is using cookie cutter approaches to things, a one-size-fits-all plan for various issues. If you are a cross-country runner, your daily training regime is going to be completely different than a 100m sprinter. The muscular output, cardiovascular and mental aspects are all different. So why wouldn't stretching be as well? As a distance runner, you want your body to be warm and loose in preparation for low intensity, long duration activity. As a sprinter, you obviously still want to be warm, but you want your musculature to be tight and able to contract and produce as much force in as little amount of time as possible (low duration, high intensity). So I ask again, should a cross-country runner and sprinter both be implementing static stretching before a race? The simple answer is no. For this example I am using a sprinter, but in any activity that requires maximum voluntary contraction (i.e, vertical jumping, long jump, 1 rep max bench) traditional stretching is not indicated. For these types of activities, a proper dynamic warm-up, addressing the musculature needed for a specific movement is much more beneficial. The reason being, skeletal muscle is made up of myofibrils, which are long chains of sarcomeres that contain actin and myosin filaments. This is where force production occurs. When tension in the muscle tissue is present, these filaments overlap each other in an adequate way to produce the most force. When stretching is applied to these filaments, the overlap relationship between them is decreased. This causes a decrease in the amount of force production available. Athletes needing maximum voluntary contraction need this overlap to be present at the time of competition to perform at an optimal level. So again, stretching is not indicated.
Stretches That Increase Injury Risk
I defined three common types of stretching above. The only one really that needs addressed here is ballistic stretching. Over the last decade, research has shown that ballistic stretching can very well lead to an increased injury risk. The nature of bringing the muscles to an extended ROM very quickly by applying fast, powerful movements activates the stretch reflex. When this occurs, the muscle can't properly relax and the desired ROM is not gained. In addition, the large amount of tension put on the muscle in the bouncing pattern can cause injury. So as we talked about using certain types of stretching for specific activities, this type of stretching is not recommended for any activity.
The benefits of stretching are clear. But it is important to identify what your goals are, what type of activity you are engaging in and then applying the correct stretching method or proper warmup. I have a list of sources I used from a capstone paper I wrote a few years ago, please contact me if you would like that list and please comment below with any questions or comments you have!
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