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Q&A - Almost Everything You Need to Know About Stretching

April 16, 2003 03:46 PM

by Jim Brown

Stretching seems to be one of those common sense things to do. But there are as many unanswered questions about stretching, as there are scientific facts to support it.

A report in The Physician and Sportsmedicine revealed that the results of many of the studies on stretching are contradictory, inconclusive, or they have been conducted only on animals. Nevertheless, there are enough data to answer many of the questions frequently asked by tennis players.

Q) Does stretching reduce injuries?

A) Stretching immediately before exercise does not necessarily prevent injuries. Continuous stretching during the day and conducted over a period of time may promote muscle growth, which in turn, could reduce the risk of injury. There is some research showing that stretching is a means of increasing muscle size and strength.

Q) Does stretching affect flexibility?

A) Yes. Loss of flexibility can be prevented and at least partially restored by stretching. However, that evidence is more compelling for a long-term stretching program than for shorter periods of time. Stretching to increase flexibility minutes prior to an event may be possible, but a stretching program over a period of months can lead to a sustained increase in range of motion.

Q) Can stretching improve performance?

A) Yes, if the stretches are designed to be sport-specific.

Q) What is the difference between static and dynamic stretching?

A) Static stretching requires that the muscle be stretched to a point of resistance and held for a period of time. Ballistic stretching involves repetitive bouncing, rebounding, or rhythmic motions and is generally thought to be more dangerous and less effective than static stretching. However, ballistic stretching is used by some physical therapists and athletic trainers to simulate the movements of certain sports. (See this month’s article on ballistic stretching for more information.)

Q) How long should you hold a stretch?

A) One 15-30 second stretch per muscle group is sufficient for most people, but some players require longer stretches and more repetitions.

Q) How many times should the same stretch be performed during one session?

A) Although one stretch per muscle group is sufficient, many professionals recommend two to three repetitions for each 10-second stretch or one repetition of 30 seconds.

Q) Are there any benefits in holding stretches longer than 30 seconds?

A) None that have been proven.

Q) Should stretches be held for the same length of time for each muscle group?

A) No, because the stretching properties vary from muscle group to muscle group and from person to person. Each person must determine the length of the hold that is most effective.

Q) What is the stretch reflex?

A) It is a mechanism that the body uses to protect muscle tissues from tearing.

Q) Why do some coaches recommend stretching after a workout?

A) When the temperature of muscles is higher than normal, stiffness decreases and extensibility increases. Athletes who want to maintain or enhance their flexibility can partially achieve that goal by stretching when their body temperature has been elevated, making it safer and more productive than when at normal at a normal level. Stretching for five minutes after exercise prevents muscles from tightening too quickly.

Q) Does it help to warm up first, then do stretching exercises?

A) Players who use an active warm-up prior to stretching get greater range of motion than those who only stretch. But injury prevention is more likely to come from warming up, not because of stretching. If range of motion is the goal, stretches are helpful. If injury prevention is the goal, you should drop the stretching before exercise and increase the amount of time warming up. But the "warming up" concept presents even more confusion because there is no universal definition of the term.

In Summary

There are more benefits from stretching than disadvantages, but the picture is not perfectly clear. Stretching programs should be individualized according to the athlete's physical makeup and level of conditioning and should be designed to accomplish one of four things:

  • maintain or improve range of motion,
  • be free of pain,
  • recover from injuries that restrict flexibility,
  • achieve sport specific goals.

Bob Anderson, author of Stretching, brings the common sense approach back to stretching. "Good stretching is knowing your body. It has nothing to do with how far you can move a particular part. The feelings you get when you stretch are a good gauge. The right feeling is when you can perform a stretch, but it doesn't hurt. Don't worry if you can't stretch as far as someone else. Some people just don't have the body to be as flexible as others."

[References: The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Sport Stretch, Stretching, Georgia Tech Sports Medicine & Performance Newsletter] ã 2003 HMS Publishing, Inc.

Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at sportsmed@mindspring.com.




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