As with most activities there are rules and guidelines to ensure that they are safe. Stretching is no exception. Stretching can be extremely dangerous and harmful if done incorrectly. It is vitally important that the following rules be adhered to, both for safety and for maximizing the potential benefits of stretching.
There is often confusion and concerns about which stretches are good and which stretches are bad. In most cases someone has told the inquirer that they should not do this stretch or that stretch, or that this is a “good” stretch and this is a “bad” stretch.
Are there only good stretches and bad stretches? Is there no middle ground? And if there are only good and bad stretches, how do we decide which ones are good and which ones are bad? Let us put an end to the confusion once and for all.
There is no such thing as a good or bad stretch!
Just as there are no good or bad exercises, there are no good or bad stretches; only what is appropriate for the specific requirements of the individual. So a stretch that is perfectly safe and beneficial for one person may not be safe or beneficial for someone else.
Let us use an example. A person with a shoulder injury would not be expected to do push-ups or freestyle swimming, but that does not mean that these are bad exercises. Now, consider the same scenario from a stretching point of view. That same person should avoid shoulder stretches, but that does not mean that all shoulder stretches are bad.
The stretch itself is neither good nor bad. It is the way the stretch is performed and whom it is performed on that makes stretching either effective and safe, or ineffective and harmful. To place a particular stretch into the category of “good” or “bad” is foolish and dangerous. To label a stretch as “good” gives people the false impression that they can do that stretch whenever and however they want and it will not cause them any harm or injury, which is misleading and dangerous.
The specific requirements of the individual are what are important! Remember, stretches are neither good nor bad. However, when choosing a stretch there are a number of precautions and checks that need to be performed before giving that stretch the okay.
1. Firstly, make a general review of the individual. Are they healthy and physically active, or have they been leading a sedentary lifestyle for the past 5 years? Are they a professional athlete? Are they recovering from a serious injury? Do they have aches, pains or muscle and joint stiffness in any area of their body?
2. Secondly, make a specific review of the area, or muscle group to be stretched. Are the muscles healthy? Is there any damage to the joints, ligaments, tendons, etc.? Has the area been injured recently, or is it still recovering from an injury?
If the muscle group being stretched is not 100% healthy, avoid stretching that area altogether. Work on recovery and rehabilitation before moving onto specific stretching exercises. If however, the individual is healthy and the area to be stretched is free from injury, then apply the following rules and guidelines to all stretches.
Warm-up prior to stretching
This first rule is often overlooked and can lead to serious injury if not performed effectively. Trying to stretch muscles that have not been warmed, is like trying to stretch old, dry rubber bands; they may snap.
Warming up prior to stretching does a number of beneficial things, but primarily its purpose is to prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity. One of the ways it achieves this is by increasing the body’s core temperature while also increasing the body’s muscle temperature. This helps to make the muscles loose, supple and pliable, and is essential to ensure the maximum benefits are gained from stretching.
A correct warm-up also has the effect of increasing both heart rate and respiratory rate. This increases blood flow, which in turn increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles. All this helps to prepare the muscles for stretching.
A correct warm-up should consist of light physical activity, like walking, jogging or easy aerobics. Both the intensity and duration of the warm-up (or how hard and how long), should be governed by the fitness level of the participating athlete, although a correct warm-up for most people should take about five to ten minutes and result in a light sweat.
Stretch before and after exercise
The question often arises: Should I stretch before or after exercise? This is not an either / or situation; both are essential. It is no good stretching after exercise and counting that as the pre-exercise stretch for next time. Stretching after exercise has a totally different purpose to stretching before exercise.
The purpose of stretching before exercise is to prepare the individual for activity and help prevent injury. Stretching does this by lengthening the muscles and associated soft tissues, which in turn increases range of motion. This ensures that we are able to move freely without restriction or injury occurring.
However, stretching after exercise has a very different role. Its purpose is primarily to aid in the repair and recovery of the muscles and associated soft tissues. By lengthening the muscles, stretching helps to prevent tight muscles and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) that sometimes accompanies strenuous exercise.
After exercise stretching should be done as part of a cool-down. The cool- down will vary depending on the duration and intensity of exercise undertaken, but will usually consist of five to ten minutes of very light physical activity and be followed by five to ten minutes of static stretching exercises.
An effective cool-down involving light physical activity and stretching will help to: rid waste products from the muscles; prevent blood pooling; and promote the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. All this helps to return the body to a pre-exercise level, thus aiding the recovery process.
Stretch all major muscles and their opposing muscle groups
When stretching, it is vitally important that attention is paid to all the major muscle groups in the body. Just because a particular sport places a lot of emphasis on the legs, for example, does not mean that one can neglect the muscles of the upper body in a stretching routine.
All the muscles play an important role in any physical activity, not just a select few. Muscles in the upper body, for example, are extremely important in any running sport. They play a vital role in the stability and balance of the body during the running motion. Therefore it is important to keep them both flexible and supple.
Every muscle in the body has an opposing muscle that acts against it. For example, the muscles in the front of the leg, (the quadriceps) are opposed by the muscles in the back of the leg, (the hamstrings). These two groups of muscles provide a resistance to each other that balance the body. If one group of muscles becomes stronger or more flexible than the other group, it is likely to lead to imbalances that can result in injury or postural problems.
For example, hamstring tears are a common injury in most running sports. They are often caused by strong quadriceps and weak, inflexible hamstrings. This imbalance puts a great deal of pressure on the hamstrings and can result in a muscle tear or strain.
The same principle applies to the left and right sides of the body. Some sports and activities place more emphasis on one side of the body, which can result in differing levels of flexibility from one side of the body to the other.
For example, baseball pitchers often develop an imbalance between their pitching arm and their non pitching arm. Typically the pitching arm and shoulder become stronger and tighter than the non pitching arm and shoulder. This can lead to uneven forces that pull on the cervical and thoracic regions of the spine, resulting in abnormal curvature, which can increase the likelihood of injuries to the neck, upper back and shoulders.
Stretch gently and slowly
Stretching gently and slowly helps to relax the muscles, which in turn makes stretching more pleasurable and beneficial. This will also help to avoid muscle tears and strains that can be caused by rapid, jerky movements.
Stretch ONLY to the point of tension
Stretching is NOT an activity that is meant to be painful; it should be pleasurable, relaxing and very beneficial. Although many people believe that to get the most from their stretching they need to be in constant pain. This is one of the greatest mistakes that can be made when stretching. Let me explain why.
When the muscles are stretched to the point of pain, the body employs a defense mechanism called the stretch reflex (or myotatic reflex). This is the body’s safety measure to prevent serious damage occurring to the muscles, tendons and joints. The stretch reflex protects the muscles and tendons by contracting them, thereby preventing them from being stretched. So to avoid the stretch reflex, avoid pain. Never push the stretch beyond what is comfortable. Only stretch to the point where tension can be felt in the muscles. This way, injury will be avoided and the maximum benefits from stretching will be achieved.
Breathe slowly and easily while stretching
Many people unconsciously hold their breath while stretching. This causes tension in the muscles, which in turn makes it very difficult to stretch. To avoid this, remember to breathe slowly and deeply during all stretching exercises. This helps to relax the muscles, promotes blood flow and increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
By taking a look at one of the most controversial stretches ever performed, we can see how the above rules are applied.
The stretch below causes a negative response from many people. It has a reputation as a dangerous, bad stretch and should be avoided at all costs.
So why is it that at every Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and World Championships, sprinters can be seen doing this stretch before their events? Let us apply the above checks to find out.
Firstly, consider the person performing the stretch. Are they healthy, fit and physically active? If not, this is not a stretch they should be doing. Are they elderly, overweight or unfit? Are they young and still growing? Do they lead a sedentary lifestyle? If so, they should avoid this stretch.
This first consideration alone would most likely prohibit 25% of the population from doing this stretch.
Secondly, review the area to be stretched. This stretch obviously places a large strain on the muscles of the hamstrings and lower back, so if the hamstrings or lower back are not 100% healthy, do not do this stretch.
With the high occurrence of back pain among the population, this second consideration could easily rule out another 50%, which means this stretch is only suitable for about 25% of the population. Or, the well trained, physically fit, injury free athlete. Then apply the six precautions above and the well trained, physically fit, injury free athlete can perform this stretch safely and effectively.
Remember, the stretch itself is neither good, nor bad. It is the way the stretch is performed and whom it is performed on that makes stretching either effective and safe, or ineffective and harmful.