Things you should know about stretching

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When I’m at the gym, nothing makes me cringe more than watching someone walk out of the locker room, go over to the stretching area, and bob up and down doing toe touches.  This is what’s known as ballistic stretching, and it’s bad for you.

Over the past few years, science has revealed many new things about the best way to stretch.  Much has changed since the days when a four-year-old me bopped along to her mother’s Jane Fonda aerobics tapes.

Unfortunately, these new developments in the science of stretching don’t seem to have seeped into the public consciousness.  I see people stretching the wrong way almost every time I go to the gym.

Here is some of the newer information about stretching.  If you have fibromyalgia/chronic pain,  your doctor or physical therapist has probably told you you need to stretch.  Here is some information that will help you make sure you’re getting the most benefit from your stretches.

Ballistic Stretches are Bad

In a ballistic stretch, you use force and momentum to help you complete the stretch.  As I mentioned, one example is when people bend over and rapidly reach down to try to touch their toes.   They are using muscle strength as well as the force of gravity; it’s almost like they’re “falling” a little bit.  This extra momentum is supposed to help them reach a little bit further than they normally could.

This form of stretching was really big in the 80’s.  As I mentioned, my mother’s Jane Fonda video tapes were full of it.  But, actually, it’s really really bad for you.

Muscles are anchored to bone on either end by tendons.  When you stretch too far, you can tear fibers not only within the muscle, but within the tendons.   By weakening the tendon, you are making yourself more prone to injury, not less.

Your body normally uses pain as a protective mechanism to stop you from stretching your muscles to the point of injury.  But when you do a ballistic stretch, you literally “bounce” right past the point of pain.  This is why this type of stretch used to be so popular– people assumed that the farther you could stretch, the better.

Now we know that’s not true.  Only stretch within your normal range of motion.  If it hurts, you need to back off a little.

Don’t do ballistic stretches.  Just don’t.

Static Stretches are Bad Before a Workout

The other kind of stretching that most people know about is static stretching; the kind where you “stretch and hold” for at least 30 seconds.  If a doctor or physical therapist has told you to stretch, this is probably the kind of stretch they mean.

Back in the days when I ran cross-country and track in high school, I static-stretched religiously.  I stretched before every run, whether it was at practice or on my own.  I stretched several times throughout the day on race days.  My coaches told me to always stretch before a workout; that it would make my muscles work better and make me less likely to be injured.

Well, it turns out they were wrong.  Research has actually shown that static stretching produces significant reductions in both muscular strength and power.  These reductions don’t appear to be permanent, but they can last for a few hours after the stretch.  This is not the kind of thing you want to be doing before a workout or a race.

For more information on these studies, check out http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/reasons-not-to-stretch/

Dynamic Stretches are the Best Pre-Workout Stretch

Dynamic stretches are sort of like ballistic stretches in that they are done while you’re moving.  But dynamic stretches don’t hurt (as long as you’re doing them right).  You aren’t using momentum to force your body into doing anything.  Rather, you are performing a specific, deliberate movement to activate the muscles you plan to use during your workout.

To understand dynamic stretches more, check out this video from Runner’s World.  All all of the stretches performed are within the person’s normal range of motion.  Dynamic stretches are not what we normally think of as a stretch.

Honestly, dynamic stretches can be a bit of a workout.  I found some of them to be challenging even during my running days.  If you think the stretches in the video look difficult, don’t be discouraged.  The video was made for serious athletes.  There are easier dynamic stretches too—if I find a good link for them, I’ll post it!

Don’t Stretch Cold Muscles

I really don’t understand why a lot of physical therapists don’t seem to get this.  I’ve seen what feels like a thousand physical therapists over the years.  They’ve all given me stretches to do, yet not one of them has suggested I do a warm-up first.

Studies have shown that muscles that have been warmed up can be stretched farther without the muscle fibers tearing. Some of these studies are kind of gross, but if you want to read about one of them you can check out http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/sports/playmagazine/112pewarm.html

I have also found this through my own experience. Stretching before a workout just sucks. It doesn’t feel like something that could possibly be good for my body. When I stretch after I’ve warmed up, it’s another matter; I feel that “good stretch” that you feel people talk about.

How to Make Stretching Work For You

To boil down everything I just said:

1) Never do ballistic stretches.  Ever.  Every movement you perform should be controlled and deliberate.  If you feel pain, you have stretched too far and you need to back off.

2) Your stretches will hurt less and be more productive if you do a mild warm-up first.  If you are severely out of shape like me, a warm-up can be a 3-5 minute walk.  Just get your heart rate up a little bit.

3) The only kind of stretching you do before a workout should be dynamic stretching.

4) If you don’t like dynamic stretches, or can’t do them, it’s ok.  Unless you’re a professional athlete, you’re probably not missing out on too much.  The jury is still out on the benefits of pre-workout stretching as a whole; none of the articles I read made it sound as though there were truly dramatic benefits to stretching before a workout.  As long as you do a warm-up, you should be fine.

That’s all I have to say about stretching for now.  What do you think– had you heard some of this information before?  Do you agree/disagree?  Let me know what you think!

Sources:

http://web.mit.edu/tkd/stretch/stretching_4.html#SEC30

http://www.exrx.net/ExInfo/Stretching.html

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/reasons-not-to-stretch/

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/sports/playmagazine/112pewarm.html?_r=0

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/06/22/to-stretch-or-not-to-stretch/

Stretching cat picture provided thanks to FurLined on Flickr.


8 thoughts on “Things you should know about stretching

  1. Good to know about different types of stretching and what we should or should not do! I find it impossible to stretch with cold muscles, but who would want to? It might be simply because my muscles would go into spasm unless they are warmed up, but maybe that’s common with everyone? Thanks for writing this. I apologize for my reading lately, I’m behind on about everything. I’m sure you understand that unpredictable life. Take care and stay safe, Edie

  2. Love this, thank you! Being a runner in a former life I had heard some of this before but not in the specific way you break it all down. Thanks for the info – I love a good stretch and now I’m reminded to do it right!
    Stina

  3. My husband is a workout nut (and in school to be a physical therapist assistant) and he agrees with everything you wrote. He has been nagging me to warm up my muscles before working out fore er now. It is nice to see the science behind it. Thanks!

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