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Stretching - A Must Do? Maybe Not!

“You have to stretch before exercise, or you will get injured!” “Stretching will make you a better athlete.” “Get your stretching in and then we’ll start practice, we don’t want any injuries”. We’ve all heard it. The fitness world will tell you that stretching is a “must do” – that it’s a well-established fact! Is it?


I once was on a faculty of a rowing coaches’ clinic and started my presentation on stretching by saying that your athletes don’t always have to stretch prior to working out. There were a lot of college coaches in the audience (read paid to coach) - you would have thought I had just said that they should coach for free. They wanted to be responsible coaches; to them, it went against all accepted logic. It did; that comment was unexpected. I was a full-time university athletic trainer (Head Athletic Trainer at the University of Rochester), whose defined role was the prevention and care of athletic injuries and who was at this clinic to talk about stretching; stretching prevents injuries. Or does it?


I made the above statement, in part, to get their attention, and to keep them awake. It seems that everybody knows all there is to know about stretching, right? The truth is that I didn’t say that their athletes didn’t need to stretch. I said that they didn’t need to stretch just before exercising. Here is a demonstrable fact: If you do light physical activity as a warmup, within 5 to 10 minutes you will be at the full flexibility limits that your body allows at that point in time. Try it yourself and see. Yes, you can get a few more degrees of range of motion by doing consistent stretching at some point during the day but it is not necessarily just prior to activity. On a few occasions I have asked for a volunteer out of the audience, measured there hamstring flexibility with a goniometer, had them peddle easy on a stationary bicycle for 5 minutes and then measured them again. The result, a 15 to 20-degree range of motion increase – no stretching involved.


Of course, I am aware that the common thinking is that stretching prior to activity prevents injuries. It’s presented as if it’s a proven fact! But is it factual? Most articles on injury prevention, will start by repeating that mantra. In all honesty, it’s so commonly stated that any author would probably be criticized if they didn’t repeat this cliché. So, I’ll open myself up to criticism here; I challenge you - If you can find well-done research in a good (juried) professional journal that  clearly shows there is a link between not stretching prior to activity and injury, please show it to me. To my knowledge, it just isn’t there!


I will concede that there is some research that indicates that right/left flexibility differences can lead to injury. At the same time there actually is research in the literature that shows that “static stretching” prior to explosive athletic activity will reduce explosiveness. Running and jumping are explosive activities. Rowing is an explosive activity – at least sprint racing is. Based on that, I would now tell the rowing coaches not to have the athletes stretch before races or if they did, I would have them do “ballistic” or active type of stretching.


Here is the “take home message”. If an athletes’ lack of range-of-motion limits his/her athletic movements then they need to do some systematic stretching, but not everyone needs to. In the case of the rowing coaches, at least, I did redeem myself by making the point that if you only have an hour and a half per day with your athletes, I personally wouldn’t waste time with group stretching. Some need to stretch, others don’t. Except for gymnastics and a few other sports, most sports are not stretching contests. Rowing certainly is not - get your warm-up on the water with light rowing! But, in rowing, for instance, if you have enough hamstring flexibility to get your shoulders in front of their hips with legs straight, you have enough flexibility – and you have no increase in vulnerably to injury than someone else in the boat who has more flexibility. Now will those who truly need to stretch do it on their own – that’s another question entirely!


So, you’re not an athlete. Do you need to stretch? The truth is: If you have enough flexibility to meet the demands of everyday activities (with good movement) and any recreational activities that you choose to do, you’re just fine. I’ll repeat it: SOME PEOPLE NEED TO STRETCH OTHERS DON’T. You do need someone educated in movement mechanics to watch you move to see if you have issues that would be helped by stretching. If you look at some of the other articles that I have put on this website, you will learn that I, in fact, need to stretch my neck and upper spine because limitations effect my daily activities. Will it make me healthier to stretch? Yes, if flexibility is a limiting factor to activities and in this case, safe driving – it’s difficult to see at a 45-degree angle behind me.


You also will not find any credible research that shows that if you already have good flexibility that more stretching will make you healthier. In fact, there are some whose compulsion to stretch even though they already have great flexibility, may be making their joints more vulnerable to injury. Having stretched a muscle to full range of motion, what is left to stretch - the ligaments! Ligaments stabilize joints, stretching them reduces joint stability. Do you want to jeopardize joint stability for the sake of a few more degrees of flexibility?


Please don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with stretching. Some of the folks at the various coaches’ clinics that I have worked said that it relaxes them. If that’s true of you, then stretch. Done properly and within limits, it won’t hurt – it’s movement. For me, other than the remedial neck exercises that I need, there are a lot of things I would prefer to do with my time. Check out Phase 1 and Phase 2 of my suggested training program. There are multiple activities that encompass functional stretching, mobilization, and structural stability exercises all on one. These are more to my liking. For me, they are much more time effective.


Have fun with your activities.



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