To stretch or not to stretch? That is the question........
Well, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, we should stretch each major muscle group for 60 seconds at least twice a week.
But what evidence exists to support stretching either for injury prevention or improved performance?
The answer is....... very little in fact. There is actually a paucity of research that has been performed, most of which is of low quality.
In a recent review published in Orthopaedic Nursing Journal, the evidence for positive effects on stretching to prevent injury was inconclusive, however, it was found that a tailored stretch and warm up program yielded best outcomes in relation to injury prevention.
No negative outcomes were found. This underlines the theory that a good warm up followed by a stretch of the main muscles used, is still effective at maintaining good flexibility. The argument being that muscles/tendons will be at less risk of being damaged if they are flexible and supple.
According to Page, (2012), there are many reasons for having reduced range of movement in the joints, only one of which is muscular tightness.
Muscle “tightness” results from an increase in tension from active or passive mechanisms. Passively, muscles can become shortened through postural adaptation or scarring; actively, muscles can become shorter due to spasm or contraction. Regardless of the cause, tightness limits range of motion and may create a muscle imbalance.
The horrible state of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is not known to be eased by stretching. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that a good stretch after exercise and the next day can ease the pain of overworked muscles and improve range of motion in joints, especially as we age.
Feland, et al (2001), found that older adults were required to stretch for up to double the time of younger people in order to affect an improvement in joint range, flexibility and gait improvement. So a hold of 60 seconds from the usual 30 was needed.
We know stretching is beneficial (or at least not damaging), but there is no evidence that stretching before exercise improves performance in athletes.
Indeed, care must be taken not to tire a muscle through stretching if ballistic exercises are about to be performed, such as sprinting. In these instances, it is better to warm up by moving at a low intensity to improve blood flow to all the muscles.
NHS choices, suggests that stretching improves flexibility and can retrain the nervous system to tolerate further stretch in the muscle fibres - thus preventing strains. This needs to be an ongoing activity due to the fact that muscle fibres return to their previous length after about 4 weeks of not stretching.
The benefits of stretching to office workers or drivers can be great, as being in one position for long periods of time can cause weakness and tightness in the muscles and effect joint mobility. These benefits are greatly increased if stretching is done as part of a well rounded exercise routine
Feland JB, Myrer JW, Schulthies SS, Fellingham GW, Measom GW. The effect of duration of stretching of the hamstring muscle group for increasing range of motion in people aged 65 years or older. Phys Ther. May 2001 Vol 81(5) pp1110–1117.
Lewis, Julia. A Systematic Literature Review of the Relationship Between Stretching and Athletic Injury Prevention. Orthopaedic Nursing: November/December 2014 - Vol 13(6)
Page,P. Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. J Sports Phys Therapy, 2012 Feb; 7(1): 109–119.