People stretch because it feels good or because they think it will increase flexibility and maybe prevent injury. Static stretching has been shown to improve flexibility, but these effects are usually temporary and may only become permanent with a consistent stretching program. For most individuals, however, stretching before exercise does not have many benefits. Much research has demonstrated an increase in flexibility following a stretching regimen because our bodies, via the nervous system, have adapted to tolerating the stretch; however, stretching did not necessarily increase joint range of motion (ROM) or muscle elasticity.
People wonder if stretching prevents injury or if it decreases muscle soreness, strength or peak sports performance (specifically in sports where flexibility is not required, such as running).
What’s the verdict?
Whether or not to stretch is entirely up to the individual, but based on the literature, it is not necessary unless you are someone who requires consistent flexibility, like dancers or hockey goalies.
There is contradictory information on stretching recommendations, but if you decide to stretch, it should be done following a warm-up or after performing low to moderate activity. It also may be more beneficial to move the joints involved in an activity through the required ROM and movement pattern for that specific activity as opposed to any type of stretching.
Although there are few studies on the correlation of warm-up and injury prevention, some research show it is possible that warming up can assist in preventing injuries. Active individuals who participate in strength or dynamic performance activities should wait to stretch after their activity is finished because of the immediate decreases in strength and performance following stretching. If you do stretch, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends the following guidelines:
• Adults should do flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week to improve ROM.
• Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds to the point of tightness or slight discomfort (should not be painful).
• Repeat each stretch two to four times, accumulating 60 seconds per stretch.
• Static, dynamic, ballistic and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretches are all effective.
• Flexibility exercise is most effective when the muscle is warm. Try light aerobic activity or a hot bath to warm the muscles before stretching.
Rafael Gutierrez, DPT is a staff physical therapist at Holy Cross Hospital’s outpatient physical therapy facility in Boca Raton. He may be reached at 561-483-6924.
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