Walker, Brad. Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility. 3rd ed. 2011. Print.
Stretching is a simple and effective activity that helps to enhance athletic performance, decrease the likelihood of sports injury and minimize muscle soreness. But how specifically is this accomplished?
Improved range of motion (ROM)
By placing particular parts of the body in certain positions, we are able to increase the length of the muscles and their associated soft tissues. As a result of this, a reduction in general muscle tension is achieved and range of motion is increased.
By increasing range of motion we are increasing the distance our limbs can move before damage occurs to the muscles and other soft tissues. For example, the muscles and tendons in the back of the legs are put under great strain when kicking a ball. Therefore, the more flexible and pliable those muscles are, the greater the range of motion and the further the leg can travel forward before a strain or injury occurs to them.
The benefits of an extended range of motion include: increased comfort; a greater ability to move freely; and a lessening of the susceptibility to soft tissue injuries like muscle and tendon strains.
There is a dangerous stretching myth that says, if you stretch too much you will lose both joint stability and muscle power . This is untrue. By increasing muscle length and range of motion we are increasing the distance over which the muscles are able to contract. This results in a potential increase to the muscles power and therefore increases athletic ability, while also leading to an improvement in dynamic balance, or the ability to control the muscles.
Reduced delayed onset muscle soreness
Most have experienced what happens when we go for a run or to the gym for the first time after an extended break. The following day the muscles are tight, sore, stiff, and it is usually hard to even walk down a flight of stairs. This soreness that usually accompanies strenuous physical activity is referred to as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).This soreness is theresult of micro tears, (minute tears within the muscle fibers), blood pooling and accumulated waste products, such as lactic acid. Stretching, as part of an effective cool-down, helps to alleviate this soreness by lengthening the individual muscle fibers; increasing blood circulation; and removing waste products.
Fatigue is a major problem for everyone, especially those who exercise. It results in a decrease in both physical and mental performance. Increased flexibility through stretching can help prevent the effects of fatigue by taking pressure off the working muscles, (the agonist).
For every muscle in the body there is an opposite or opposing muscle, (the antagonist). If the opposing muscles are more flexible, the working muscles do not have to exert as much force against the opposing muscles. Therefore each movement of the working muscles actually takes less effort.
Along with the benefits listed above, a regular stretching program will also help to improve posture; develop body awareness; improve co-ordination; promote circulation; increase energy; and improve relaxation and stress relief.
Why is there so much confusion about stretching?
If improving flexibility will result in all the benefits listed above, why is it common to hear reports that say; stretching should be avoided?
The study of stretching and flexibility training really has a long way to go. If someone told the average sports coach or personal trainer that bicep curls are the best exercise; the reply would be “please explain!” The best for what? The best for whom? What type of bicep curl? And when are they the best? The person making this sort of claim would be dismissed as ignorant and un- learned.
But these are the same sort of statements that I hear about stretching every day. And the problem is; that same sports coach or personal trainer who questioned the statement about bicep curls; accepts by blind faith that these statements about stretching are true, without giving them a second thought.
Statements like: The best type of stretching is dynamic stretching. Never do this stretch. This is the best stretch. Don’t stretch before exercise.
These ridiculous statements are causing a lot of confusion about the topic of stretching and causing some people to abandon stretching altogether.
These unqualified statements, like the ones above, should not be made without fully disclosing all the parameters involved. For example, I recently heard a lecturer make the comment… “ The best time to stretch is 2 hours after exercise. ” This statement needs to be questioned.
Stretch for what: To improve flexibility; to improve recovery; to avoid injury? And for whom: For athletes; for sedentary people; for those looking to improve flexibility; for those looking to improve performance; for someone recovering from an injury? And what type of stretching is he talking about: Static stretching; PNF stretching; dynamic stretching; AI stretching?
A new level of professionalism is required for the topic of stretching and flexibility training. The professionalism and competency of the strength training industry has developed monumentally over the last 20 years and it is time that the flexibility industry does the same. More questions need to be asked and current theories need to be expanded and explained in more detail.
The bottom line is: Stretching is beneficial, when used correctly. Remember, stretching is just one very 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.
Stretching is not a quick fix
Even with all the benefits listed earlier, stretching is not a quick fix. No one is going to do a few stretches before they exercise and magically become a better athlete or totally resilient to injury.
Just the same as doing three sets of lunges before playing basketball will not make someone a better basketball player, or doing three sets of bicep curls before playing tennis will not make them a better tennis player, the same applies to stretching. Doing three sets of hamstring stretches before running onto the sports field will do very little, if anything for anyone.
This is where a number of recent studies have fallen short. In an attempt to measure the benefits of stretching, researchers have tried to use stretching in the same way as the examples above. They have tried to measure the effects of doing a few stretches before playing sport, and when the results of their research suggest that no benefit was gained, they make the wrong assumption that stretching is a waste of time.
Stretching was never meant to be used in this way, and if anyone makes the claim that doing a few stretches before you exercise will make you a better athlete or less susceptible to injury, they are incorrect.
The benefits of stretching are only attained when flexibility training is applied professionally and diligently over an extended period of time; just the same as a weight loss program, or strength training program. No one expects to lose weight after eating one healthy meal, or grow big muscles after doing one workout in the gym.
Stretching is beneficial, when used correctly.
*Walker, Brad. Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility. 3rd ed. 2011. Print.