How effective is stretching really?

A true representation of what happens when you ask Luke for a simple answer around health and fitness...


Put simply, human movement depends on the Range Of Motion (ROM) around the joints and the ROM can be limited by two main contributing factors: joints and muscles. This article is mainly focused on muscles (1).


In the muscles, the obvious need for stretching we sometimes feel is having a tight feeling in the muscles or tension. This is generally down to two contributors: active and passive.


Active: being neurons innervation (brain signaling), pretty much the brain telling the muscle to contract and/or stay tight to protect from danger. Sometimes these are spasms, spasms tend to happen as a compensatory reaction when there’s either or instability or weakness in a surrounding muscle.


Passive: structure of muscle, the tightness felt is sometimes related to a persons posture and or some scar tissue following some sort of trauma to the muscles, whether that be an injury or surgery.


What stretching is supposed to do:

· Increase the length between origin and insertion (start of muscle to the end of the muscle).

· Improve sports performance

· Decrease risk of injury


Now, I’m not sure if any of the above is 100% true but I’m certain that it feels good to stretch.


What some of the research says:


A study comparing the effects of stretching vs manual therapy on neck pain in women. The study showed that both methods of treatment were effective methods for neck pain with very little difference between the two, but if finances are the issue then stretching is free.


In the geriatric population, participants went under a 10 weeks stretching programme of the lower limbs to see if improvements can be made on their balancing ability (2). The study showed significant improvements in their overall balance, which in terms of reducing the risk of falling, is a very positive outcome.


Other studies have compared the immediate effects of Static Stretching vs Eccentric (lowering of the weight) Loading. The study found that the eccentric loading group had a significant improvement in hamstring flexibility against the static stretching group.



Types of stretching

Static stretching:

Is the traditional, push or pull the muscle into its most lengthened state, at the end of its range and where it is just a little uncomfortable and hold it there for a set length of time, usually around 10s or more, depending on the desired goal of the stretch. Static stretching for longer periods of time (around 30s) has been shown to improve Range Of Motion in that short window and has further shown some positive results on a persons ability to produce force and performance in all other activities over the long term if practiced regularly (3). You can do these types of stretches on your own, but you can also get some assistance from a partner or a personal trainer. The assisted stretching is always quite useful for practicing the precontraction types of stretches (spoken of below), or just want to lie down and let someone do it for you.


Dynamic stretching

Just means on the move, taking the muscles through its whole Range Of Movement with control and not pausing as you would in the static stretch, you would usually practice Dynamic Stretching with a sports person or somebody with some experience with exercise. The purpose of it is it increases core temperature and wake up the brain signaling to the muscles being used for that particular activity. Dynamic Stretching is better suited before a training session as opposed to static stretching.


Ballistic Stretching (Bounce at the end of ROM): please don’t do these. Leave this back with the sweat bands and leg warmers.


Pre-contraction Type Stretching

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)/Muscle Energy Technique (MET). I’m pretty certain that these two names mean exactly the same and I’m ready to be corrected if needs be :D… This type of stretching is not limited to but relies on you having somebody to assist you. The general consensus behind it is for your PT to stretch the muscle to its limit, hold for 10s, then apply some resistance (around 20%-80%) in the opposing direction for 6s then repeat the stretch at end range. You should feel the muscle is able to go a little bit further. Repeat this 2-3 more times and there should be a noticeable difference in overall feel and how much more range you have in the muscle.




Contraindications to stretching (When to not stretch):


The serious NO NO!


· Body block at the end of range

· Unstable/recent fracture

· Acute soft tissue injury

· Infection/haematoma in tissue

· Post surgical repair

· Hypermobile

· Client refusal


The no for performance!

· No static stretching before performance as you may see a decline in your performance. Stick to dynamic stretching.



To conclude...


The research surrounding stretching certainly isn’t one sided and quite up in the air, but as shown in this light read that there are some potential benefits with very little risk (on performance if done at the wrong time), so why would you not. Especially if it feels good knowing that you’ve just had a good training session and you want to feel that you’re cooled down properly. What I would say though, for the immediate feeling of nimbleness, the research looks more promising in eccentric loading of muscles and using a partner to practice some PNF-type/MET-type stretching. I would also advise that you take note of the contraindications that surround stretching and use it appropriately for your current status, but otherwise, enjoy!




References

Bolin, D., 2001. Rehabilitation of Sports Injuries: Current Concepts. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(12), p.2157.

Reddy, R. and Alahmari, K., 2016. Effect of Lower Extremity Stretching Exercises on Balance in Geriatric Population. International Journal of Health Sciences, 10(3), pp.371-377.

Shrier, I., 2004. Does Stretching Improve Performance?. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 14(5), pp.267-273.

Ylinen, J., Wirén, K. and Häkkinen, A., 2007. Stretching exercises vs manual therapy in treatment of chronic neck pain: a randomized, controlled cross-over trial. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 39(2), pp.126-132.


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