The Wrong Stretching Can Injure

The NY Times Play Magazine recently featured an article on stretching written by Gretchen Reynolds that reveals what the latest research has determined on the subject. Suprisingly, what many of us learned as “the proper way” to do warm-up stretching is potentially damaging to your muscles.

“Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds – known as static stretching – primes muscles for a  workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent.”

Kinesiologist Rob Williams of Williams Health Group, the parent company of Mixx Fitness Studio and Performance Posture clinic in downtown Vancouver, agrees with much of this article.

“Over the last 16 years my team of trainers hasn’t let a client start their session without a progressive warm-up and range of motion exercises to elevate their tissue temperatures and lubricate their joints.

The real question here lies in the efficacy and proper application of static vs. dynamic stretching. In my opinion there is room for both methods so long as they are applied appropriately.

For an athlete in the pre-competition warm-up stage, we definitely don’t want to inhibit performance by weakening the muscles, so this is the perfect timing for dynamic stretching and range of motion movements like the straight-leg march and the handwalks. In fact, the SpiderMan is one of my favorite dynamic drills. It is important, however, to make sure that there is a progressive increase in the range of motion during these drills. Always kicking the leg to the same height in the straight-leg march won’t offer the same flexibility advantages that would be possible if you gradually kick higher and higher.

For an individual engaged in general training or an off-season conditioning program, the emphasis is usually not so much on their event-specific performance as on the development of a functional, healthy body structure.

Let’s consider someone who can’t do a proper pushup because their shoulder-girdle range of motion is compromised and scapula isn’t moving correctly. I know from experience that careful application of the correct static stretches will provide the necessary range of motion for this person to perform this basic functional exercise without risk of injury. I may perform static stretches before the exercise because I’m more concerned about the ability to perform a safe movement through a full functional range of motion than about whether or not we fatigue at 8 repetitions instead of 12. Static stretching and other techniques such as PNF would then also be performed at the end of the session to provide permanent improvement in
range of motion.

Whenever attempting to stretch a shortened muscle, whether in a static or dynamic fashion, I’ll certainly make sure the person has been properly warmed up in advance to avoid injury.” 

Read the full NY Times article here, which includes the United States Tennis Association’s Best 4 Dynamic Stretches.

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