To Stretch or Not to Stretch?
The jury is still out, but if you're going to do it, do it well
What's the first thing you should do when starting a workout? Stretch, right? Well, maybe not.
For decades, it seemed like stretching before and after exercise was a no-brainer, based on the widespread view that loosening tight muscles and improving flexibility helped prevent injuries, decrease soreness, and result in a generally better workout. That and the fact that everyone's high school gym teacher made them do it.
But the latest research shows that stretching is not as beneficial as once believed. For example, a 2007 analysis of 10 studies in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that stretching before exercise doesn't prevent post-workout muscle soreness, muscle overuse, or acute sports injuries. That echoes the official government review by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in the March 2004 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which reported that people who stretched before exercise were no more or less likely to suffer injuries like pulled muscles.
Indeed, many doctors and personal trainers now say "don't bother," when it comes to stretching and other flexibility exercises. Take William Roberts, MD, MS, a professor in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School: "Why waste time?" he asks. "Especially for someone with diabetes who is reasonably healthy, doesn't have injuries, and who really needs to be burning calories and developing cardiovascular fitness, I think stretching is overrated … . What I tell most people is that time stretching is just time resting, and you're really not gaining much." Roberts does support activities that combine stretching and strengthening, like yoga, "but if it's just plain stretching," he says, "you're better off simply warming up--walking or running slowly for a few minutes before a workout--and then cooling down."
Other experts disagree, arguing that there are plenty of reasons to keep stretching. For example, sports physiologist Mike Bracko says that regular flexibility training has a range of documented health benefits, from improved posture, circulation, coordination, and balance to stress relief. In particular, he notes that stretching can help reverse the harmful effects of chronic occupational positions--like sitting at a desk or computer all day--which can cause your muscles to become short, tight, and achy. Bracko, who is the director of the Institute for Hockey Research in Calgary, Canada, adds that at least one recent study found that daily stretching just once per muscle group for 30 seconds can result in a better range of motion, which is especially important as we get older in order to maintain everyday tasks like lifting and bending.
While both Bracko and Brad Walker, founder of The Stretching Institute in Long Island City, N.Y., and author of The Stretching Handbook, acknowledge that stretching may not be the athletic panacea we once thought it was, they warn that the vast majority of us should not throw out the baby with the bath water. "[The research] doesn't mean that all forms of stretching are no good," explains Walker. "What's happening at the moment is that we're learning how to use different types of stretching and, more importantly, when to use them, when it comes to things like rehabilitation, preventing injuries, and improving performance … . We're starting to understand that one type of stretching doesn't fit all situations." For example, he says, in general, the best type of flexibility work to do before exercise is dynamic stretching, where you use movement or motion to stretch the muscles, like the "leg swing stretch," where you stand on one leg and move the other leg back and forth in a swinging-type motion. In contrast, static stretching--say, holding a pose like touching your toes for several seconds or more, which helps improve range of motion and long-term flexibility--is best after a workout, when the body is already warm and limber.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends a stretching program that exercises the major muscle and tendon groups with a variety of techniques, including static and dynamic stretches, a minimum of two to three days a week but up to daily. If you weigh both sides of the fitness argument du jour and decide that flexibility training is worth your time, Walker offers some tips for getting started:
- Warm up first. Contrary to popular belief, stretching itself is not a warm-up, so it's important to do some sort of quick aerobic preparation like jogging or walking slowly for a few minutes first, in order to get your blood flowing--and lower your chance of injury.
- Keep breathing. Don't hold your breath during a stretch. Inhaling and exhaling deeply during flexibility exercises help you relax and get a better stretch.
- Feel pull, not pain. To get the most benefit out of flexibility training, you should stretch to the point that you feel a pull or tension in your muscles, but not discomfort or pain of any sort, which can mean that you're pushing too far and risking damage.
- Don't stretch an injury. While some people think that stretching can help an injury, flexibility work should be avoided in the early phases of a problem, just like any other sort of activity (although it can be beneficial in later stages of rehabilitation).
- Relax, relax, relax. Try to rest your body as much as possible when you stretch, so you're not contracting other muscle groups when you're trying to, say, stretch your hamstrings. Stretching should be relaxing and feel good, and ideally can be used as a form of meditation, to unwind and relieve stress.
- Start with 5 minutes a day. The tendency is to try to stretch all of the major muscle groups in one sitting, but that's a pretty daunting task. Instead, start by concentrating on just one or two muscle groups at a time--like your chest and shoulders one day and your legs or back the next. Begin with the areas that are most tight and uncomfortable, and work from there.
Despite the fact that flexibility training can be a safe and relatively easy part of any workout regimen, experts stress that it's incredibly important to stretch properly. James A. Peterson, PhD, FACSM, a former professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy, identified some of the most common--and biggest--mistakes that people make when it comes to stretching in an article for the American College of Sports Medicine's Health & Fitness Journal. In particular, he listed:
Not stretching the muscles you're trying to stretch. Too many people don't stretch what they think they're stretching because they don't perform their flexibility exercises properly. More often than not, either they don't know how to do a particular exercise properly, or they make an inappropriate adjustment in their body position when stretching.
Not performing a balanced stretching regimen. To avoid the consequences of stretching unequally (e.g., the muscles that receive inadequate attention tend to tighten and shorten, causing such notable conditions as rounded shoulders), it is essential that you don't stretch in one direction without balancing out that effort by also stretching in the opposite direction. [For example, you should work both the quads on the front of the thigh and the hamstrings in the back.]
Not performing each stretching exercise slowly and smoothly. You should avoid using fast, jerky, or bouncing movements when performing stretching exercises. Doing so may force your muscles to stretch to an unsafe range of motion before your nervous system has time to protect them by signaling your muscle(s) to contract.
Not stretching often enough. At a minimum, most fitness experts recommend that stretching exercises should be performed 4 to 5 times per week, and preferably daily. As a rule, because most flexibility gains are (far too) easily lost, the basic rule of thumb is that you should stretch often.
Not understanding that being flexible is not synonymous with being in good shape. Flexibility is just one of the essential components of physical fitness. As such, you should combine aerobic exercise, strengthening exercises, and adherence to sound nutritional practices with your stretching exercises in order to attain and sustain a desirable level of fitness.
As for me, I still love to stretch, no matter what the research says, mostly because it just feels so darn good. It's also a nice break--both mental and physical--before and after a challenging workout. Until now, I've always been a static type of girl, but I must say that implementing a few dynamic stretches into my walking practice has gone really well, leaving me feeling much looser and better prepared before a good stroll. For those of you who are interested in a well-balanced flexibility routine, try the moves at left. After all, as the old proverb says, "It is better to bend than to break."
You don't need to bend your body like a pretzel to get a great flexibility workout. In fact, just integrating a few simple stretches into daily life or a specific exercise plan can make a big difference in how you feel and function, says Brad Walker of The Stretching Institute (www.thestretchinginstitute.com). He points out that flexibility training can either be used as a gentle workout in itself, or as a way to ease into other forms of exercise so you don't overdo it straight away, especially for people who have been sedentary for a long time or are overweight or injured. Once you're up and running, he says, you may find that stretching is the "icing on the cake" that helps bring together, balance, and improve your aerobic and strength training workouts.
To get started, Walker recommends this basic routine of three dynamic stretches, to be done on their own or before a walk or aerobic workout of any sort, and three static stretches, to be performed when you've finished exercising. Make sure to start off slowly, and gradually build up momentum.
Do 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise, 2 to 3 times.
1. Lower back, stomach, and sides. Stand upright, cross your arms, and place your hands on your shoulders. Gently rotate by turning from one side to the other.
2. Hamstrings. Stand upright and gently swing one leg in a forward and backward motion.
3. Shoulders. Stand upright and then swing one arm out in front and over your head. Then let your arm swing downward and behind your body.
Once you're in the stretch position, hold for 20 to 30 seconds (or as long as you can), and repeat 2 to 3 times.
4. Chest and shoulders. Stand upright and interlock your fingers. Bend your arms and place them above your head while forcing your elbows and hands backwards.
5. Quadriceps. Bend down on one foot and the other knee. If needed, hold on to something to keep your balance. Push your hips forward.
6. Calves. Stand upright and then take one big step backwards. Keep your back leg straight and push your heel to the ground.