Without a doubt, the most common questions I'm asked is; "What's your view on the latest scientific studies and research findings in regards to stretching?"
The short answer is; "They all make for interesting reading, but I don't put a huge amount of confidence in them." Let me explain why.
Most of the studies I've reviewed attempt to determine the effects of stretching on injury prevention. This is a mistake in itself, and shows a lack of understanding as to how stretching is used as part of an injury prevention program.
Stretching, by itself, will not prevent injury. In fact, stretching can cause injury if certain precautions aren't taken.
Plus, it's not just a flexibility problem that can lead to injury. It could be a strength imbalance. It could be a stability or balance problem. It could be a proprioceptive imbalance. It could have to do with postural imbalances. It could have to do with physical imbalances like leg length differences. Or, it could simply be a matter of trying to do too much, too soon.
Stretching is just one very important component that assists in reducing the risk of injury. The best results are achieved when stretching is used in combination with other injury reduction techniques.
Stretching and its effect on physical performance and injury prevention is something that just can't be measured scientifically. The effects of stretching are very hard to measure and all the studies that I have seen are nothing more than anecdotal studies. Meaning the results achieved, or not achieved, are simply that persons perception of what has improved or not improved.
You see, stretching is not a science. It is near impossible to PROVE anything about stretching, scientifically. Sure you can measure the effect of stretching on flexibility with simple tests like the "Site and Reach test" but then to determine how that affects athletic performance or injury susceptibility is near impossible. The only way to do it would be with muscle biopsy's, which can be extremely painful and lead to muscle damage if done repeatedly.
I've seen so many people benefit from stretching and increased flexibility, that I'm absolutely positive it is beneficial. Most people involved in the "hands-on" side of coaching and sports training aren't worried by this type of study. It's mostly the academics that do the majority of there coaching from behind a desk, that are influenced by these studies.
So what can we say about the benefits of stretching...
Firstly: Upon undertaking a regular stretching program a number of changes occur within the body. Firstly, by placing particular parts of the body in certain positions, we are able to increase the length of muscles and tendons. As a result of this, a reduction in general muscle tension is achieved and our normal range of movement is increased.
By increasing our range of movement we are increasing the distance our limbs can move before damage occurs to the muscles and tendons. For example, the muscles and tendons in the back of our legs are put under great strain when kicking a football. Therefore, the more flexible and pliable those muscles are, the further our leg can travel forward before a strain or injury occurs to them.
The benefits of an extended range of movement includes: increased comfort; a greater ability to move freely; and a lessening of our susceptibility to muscle and tendon strain injuries.
Secondly: There is a dangerous stretching myth that says, 'if you stretch too much you will lose both joint stability and muscle power. This is totally untrue. By increasing our muscle and tendon length we are increasing the distance over which our muscles are able to contract. This results in a potential increase to our muscles' power and therefore increases our athletic ability, while also leading to an improvement in dynamic balance, or the ability to control our muscles.
Thirdly: We have all experienced what happens when you go for a run or to the gym for the first time in a few months. The following day our muscles are tight, sore, stiff and it's usually hard to even walk down a flight of stairs. This soreness that usually accompanies strenuous physical activity is often referred to as post exercise muscle soreness. This soreness is the result of micro tears, (minute tears within the muscle fibres), blood pooling and accumulated waste products, such as lactic acid. Stretching, as part of an effective cool-down, helps to alleviate this soreness by lengthening the individual muscle fibres, increasing blood circulation and removing waste products.
Fourthly: Fatigue is a major problem for everyone, especially those who exercise. It results in a decrease in both physical and mental performance. Increased flexibility through stretching can help prevent the effects of fatigue by taking pressure off the working muscles. For every muscle in the body has an opposite or opposing muscle and if the opposing muscles are more flexible, the working muscles do not have to exert as much force against the opposing muscles. Therefore each movement of the working muscles actually takes less effort.
And finally: Any person who experiences the benefits of stretching is certainly more likely to feel good about themselves. This leads to a confidence and assuredness, which helps to enhance physical performance and motivate the individual to participate in exercise.
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