To really take advantage of the many benefits of stretching, a record of flexibility should be kept. For sports trainers and coaches in particular, it is vitally important to test and chart an athletes’ flexibility on a regular basis. This is important for two reasons.
Firstly, it provides a starting point from which to measure improvements and gives an indication of any areas that may be weak, limited or inflexible.
Secondly, in the event of an injury, this baseline flexibility provides a goal to achieve before resuming exercise or returning to competition. It is vitally important that flexibility is regained after an injury. Therefore having a record of what the level of flexibility was before the injury is very useful as a target to achieve.
During the year set a minimum standard of flexibility for the activities engaged in. If an athlete becomes injured, it should be the goal to achieve the minimum standard of flexibility required for that activity before returning to exercise, competition or strenuous training.
What follows is a brief example of a few basic flexibility tests. These are the most commonly used tests but they are by no means the only ones. If more are required, consult a professional sports trainer for ideas about tests that are specific to the athletes’ particular sport. Remember The Rules for Safe Stretching in chapter 5 and once a test is used it is important not to vary it in any way. It must be kept the same each time it is used.
All the following tests are best done using a goniometer; a devise for measuring body limb angles. If a goniometer is not available, any standard 360 degree protractor will give a good indication of the angle at a particular joint.
Sit and Reach Test
The sit and reach test is probably the most common test used to measure flexibility in the back, hips and hamstring muscles.
Sit on the floor with your legs straight and your feet flat 38 against an upright board. Bend forward reaching towards, or as far past, your toes as possible, and then record the distance reached. This test will give a good indication of hamstring, hip and back flexibility.
Shoulder Flexibility Test
Unfortunately, participants in sports such as swimming, tennis (or any racket sport), any of the throwing events in athletics and especially contact sports, are extremely susceptible to injuries of the shoulder. Shoulder flexibility should be a prime concern for anyone participating in these sports.
Start by standing upright with the hand pointing down. In this position the hand represents the 0 degree position.
Then raise the arm directly forward and above the head, as in the picture to the right. Its furthest point is then recorded. An average acceptable reading of 180 degrees is expected for athletes.
Now move the arm down and behind the back to its furthest position, as in the picture to the right. This measurement is recorded and should
exceed 50 degrees.
Hamstring Flexibility Test
Lie on the ground face up, with arms straight beside the body, as in the picture below. Raise one leg as far up as possible. Keep the leg straight and measure the angle at the hip joint. An angle of 90 degrees is considered average to good.
When to stretch?
Stretching needs to be as important as the rest of our training. If we are involved in any competitive type of sport or exercise then it is crucial that we make time for specific stretching workouts. Set time aside to work on muscle groups that are tight or especially important for your particular sport. The more involved and committed we are to exercise and fitness, the more time and effort we will need to commit to stretching.
As discussed in chapter 5 it is important to stretch both before and after exercise, but when else should we stretch? Stretch periodically throughout the entire day. It is a great way to stay loose and to help ease the stress of everyday life. One of the most productive ways to utilize time is to stretch while watching television. Start with five minutes of marching or jogging on the spot then take a seat on the floor in front of the television and start stretching.
Competition is a time when great demands are placed on the body; therefore it is vitally important that we are in peak physical condition. Flexibility should be at its best just before competition. Too many injuries are caused by the sudden exertion that is needed for competitive sport. Get strict on stretching before competition.
What type of stretching?
Choosing the right type of stretching for the right purpose will make a big difference to the effectiveness of any flexibility training program. To follow are some suggestions for when to use the different types of stretches.
For warming up, dynamic stretching is the most effective, while for cooling down, static, passive and PNF stretching are best. For improving range of motion, try PNF and Active Isolated stretching, and for injury rehabilitation, a combination of PNF, Isometric and Active stretching will give the best results.
Hold, Count, Repeat
For how long should we hold each stretch? How often should we stretch? For how long should we stretch?
These are the most commonly asked questions when discussing the topic of stretching. Although there are conflicting responses to these questions, it is my professional opinion, that through a study of research literature and personal experience, I believe what follows is currently the most correct and beneficial information.
The question that causes the most conflict is: For how long should I hold each stretch? For Static and Passive stretching, some text will say that as little as ten seconds is enough. This is a bare minimum. Ten seconds is only just enough time for the muscles to relax and start to lengthen. For any real improvement to flexibility, each stretch should be held for at least twenty to thirty seconds.
The time committed to stretching should be relative to the level of involvement in our particular sport. So, for people looking to increase their general level of health and fitness, a minimum of about twenty seconds will be enough. However, if involved in high level competitive sport we need to hold each stretch for at least thirty seconds and start to extend that to sixty seconds and beyond.
How often should I stretch? The same principle of adjusting the level of commitment to the level of involvement in our sport applies to the number of times we should stretch each muscle group. For example, the beginner should stretch each muscle group two to three times. However, if involved at a more advanced level, we should stretch each muscle group three to five times.
For how long should I stretch? The same principle applies. For the beginner, about five to ten minutes is enough, and for the professional athlete, anything up to two hours. If we are somewhere between the beginner and professional adjust the time spent stretching accordingly.
Do not be impatient with stretching. Nobody can get fit in a couple of weeks, so do not expect miracles from a stretching routine. Looking long term, some muscle groups may need a minimum of three months of regular stretching to see any real improvement. So stick with it, it is well worth the effort.
When starting a stretching program it is a good idea to start with a general range of stretches for the entire body, instead of just a select few. The idea of this is to reduce overall muscle tension and to increase the mobility of the joints and limbs.
The next step should be to increase overall flexibility by starting to extend the muscles beyond their normal range of motion. Following this; work on specific areas that are tight or important for your particular sport. Remember, all this takes time. This sequence of stretches may take up to three months to see real improvement, especially if we have no background in agility based activities or are heavily muscled.
Limited data exists on what order individual stretches should be done in. However, some researchers have suggested designing flexibility training programs that start with the core muscles of the stomach, sides, back and neck, and then work out to the extremities. Others have recommended starting with sitting stretches, because there is less chance of accidental injury while sitting, before moving on to standing stretches.
The exact order in which individual stretches are done is not the main point of emphasis; the main priority is to cover all the major muscle groups and their opposing muscles, and to work on those areas that are most tight or more important for your specific sport.
Once we have advanced beyond improving overall flexibility and are working on improving the range of motion of specific muscles, or muscle groups, it is important to isolate those muscles during the stretching routines. To do this, concentrate on only one muscle group at a time. For example, instead of trying to stretch both hamstrings at the same time, concentrate on only one at a time. Stretching this way will help to reduce the resistance from other supporting muscle groups.
Posture, or alignment, while stretching is one of the most neglected aspects of flexibility training. It is important to be aware of how crucial it can be to the overall benefits of stretching. Poor posture and incorrect alignment can cause imbalances in the muscles that can lead to injury. While proper posture will ensure that the targeted muscle group receives the best possible stretch.
In many instances one major muscle group can be made up of a number of different muscles. If posture is poor or incorrect certain stretching exercises may put more emphasis on one particular muscle within that muscle group, thus causing an imbalance that could lead to injury.
The picture on the right, for example, shows the difference between good posture and poor posture when stretching the hamstring muscles (the muscles at the back of the upper legs).
During this stretch it is important to keep both feet pointing straight up. Allowing the feet to fall to one side will put more emphasis on one particular part of the hamstrings, which could result in a muscle imbalance. Note the athlete on the left; feet upright and back relatively straight. The athlete on the right is at a greater risk of causing a muscular imbalance that may lead to injury.
How to use stretching as part of the warm-up
Lately, I have been receiving a lot of questions referring to recent studies and research findings about stretching. The most common question I receive concerns the role that stretching plays as part of the warm-up procedure.
Currently, there seems to be a lot of confusion about how and when stretching should be used as part of the warm-up, and some people are under the impression that stretching should be avoided altogether.
This is a very important issue and needs to be clarified immediately. The following information is provided to dispel some common myths and misconceptions about stretching and its role as part of the warm-up.
What has science got to say?
Most of the studies I have reviewed attempt to determine the short term, or one-off effects of stretching on injury prevention. This is a mistake in itself and shows a lack of understanding as to how stretching is used as part of a conditioning or injury prevention program.
Stretching and its effect on physical performance and injury prevention is something that just can not be measured scientifically. Sure we can measure the effect of stretching on flexibility with simple tests like the Sit and Reach Test , but then to determine how that effects athletic performance or injury susceptibility is very difficult, if not near impossible. One of the more recent studies on stretching supports this view by concluding; 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.
To put the above quote in layman’s terms; there has not been enough studies done and the studies that have been done are not specific or consistent enough.
The greatest misconception
Confusion about what stretching accomplishes, as part of the warm-up procedure, is causing many to abandon stretching altogether. The key to understanding the role stretching plays can be found in the previous sentence; but you have to read it carefully.
Stretching, as part of the warm-up!
Here is the key: Stretching is a critical part of the warm-up, but stretching is NOT the warm-up.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that doing a few stretches constitutes a warm-up. An effective warm-up has a number of very important key elements, which all work together to minimize the likelihood of sports injury and prepare the individual for physical activity.
Identifying the components of an effective and safe warm-up, and executing them in the correct order is critical. Remember, stretching is only one part of an effective warm-up, and its place in the warm-up procedure is specific and dependant on the other components.
The four key elements that should be included to ensure an effective and complete warm-up are:
1. The general warm-up: This phase of the warm-up consists of 5 to 15 minutes of light physical activity. The aim here is to elevate the heart rate and respiratory rate, increase blood flow and increase muscle temperature.
2. Static stretching: Next, a few minutes of gentle static stretching should be incorporated into the general warm-up to gradually lengthen all the major muscle groups and associated soft tissues of the body.
3. The sports specific warm-up: During this phase of the warm-up, 10 to 15 minutes of sport specific drills and exercises should be used to prepare the athlete for the specific demands of their chosen sport.
4. Dynamic stretching: Lastly, the warm-up procedure should finish with a number of dynamic stretching exercises that mimic the common movements of the sport or activity to follow. For example, arm rotations for swimming, or swing kicks for running sports. Remember, the force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled.
All four parts are equally important and any one part should not be neglected or thought of as not necessary. All four elements work together to bring the body and mind to a physical peak, ensuring the athlete is prepared for the activity to come.
Please note the following points
1. Dynamic stretching carries with it an increased risk of injury if used incorrectly. Refer to chapter 4 for more information about dynamic stretching.
2. The time recommendations given in the above warm-up procedure relate specifically to the requirements of a serious athlete. Adjust the times accordingly if your athletic participation is not of a professional manner.
3. Recent studies have indicated that static stretching may have a negative effect on muscle contraction speed and therefore impair performance of athletes involved in sports requiring high levels of power and speed. It is for this reason that static stretching is conducted early in the warm-up procedure and is always followed by sports specific drills and dynamic stretching. Recent studies suggest no detrimental effects when static stretching is conducted early in the warm-up.
What conclusions can we make?
Stretching is beneficial, when used correctly. Remember, stretching is just one important component that assists to reduce the risk of injury and improve athletic performance. The best results are achieved when stretching is used in combination with other injury reduction techniques and conditioning exercises.
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.