Stretching is a basic and instinctive activity of humans. After a long period of inactivity like driving or sleeping a person automatically stretches the body. Even a baby in mother’s womb stretches out limbs – a delight for parents to experience these primitive reflexes.
Athletes stretch to improve flexibility in order to reduce injury risks and increase performance (Prentice, William E). During a stretch, a muscle is pulled to better its elasticity and muscle tone (Weerapong, Pornratshanee et al.). Many types of stretching techniques are practiced by physiotherapists and S & C coaches, including Static, Dynamic, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) and Self Myofascial Release (SMF) stretching. Stretching also has therapeutic use in treating muscle cramps (Dagenais, Marc).
There have been a few studies which demonstrated the negative impact of stretching schemes on strength protocol that immediately followed (Winchester, JB et al; Arnold G Nelson et al.). Though these studies clearly state that multiple mechanisms may be involved in stretch-induced strength inhibition, a few coaches think otherwise. These coaches started publishing articles stating that stretching is overrated, and it barely provides any benefit at all. They also stated that only transient improvements in flexibility are attained with stretching without accompanying the motor control required.
The blanket statements like such stirred controversy and confused the masses. As they say, “We suffer more from imagination than from reality“. It’s the similar case for the fear of stretching hampering the performance.
Stretch-induced strength loss is, in part, attributable to a prolonged inhibitory effect of stretching (Avela et al.). Also, the power loss of only about 2% has been reported for elite athletes. And that too in static stretching only, not when static & dynamic stretching is combined (Torres et al.). This indicates that a normal routine of stretching and mobility drills is safe and effective. Also, it’s been shown that pre-participation stretching is beneficial for reducing muscle strains (Ekstrand et al.; Bixler & Jones; Amako et al.; Hadala & Barrios).
To Stretch or Not?
When the aim is to increase the range of motion, stretching is the fastest route possible. Daily stretching practice helps to make quick gains in the range of motion, better sports performance and postural balance. If your daily posture is a problem like rounded shoulders, hunched back
or forward head position, make it a habit of stretching those muscles regularly. For example, if you experience back pain due to anterior pelvic tilt (APT), perform right stretches & mobility drills along with strengthening of weak muscles to correct it.
Regular stretching helps to retain hips and hamstrings mobility later in life. As these two muscle groups are most prone to lose flexibility and cause problems like knee and hip pain, later on, staying flexible is a good idea.
For athletes, placing emphasis on different types of stretching techniques is helpful to reduce chronic tightness while getting bigger and stronger. For example, stretching with weights to improve flexibility as well as mobility for a particularly problematic movement pattern, say horizontal pressing. It not only relieves overly tight local contractile tissues but also improves movement pattern in the process.
The most commonly prevalent way to stretch is to simply hold a muscle group in an extended position to the fullest range of motion for a few seconds. It is called Static stretching. It’s most effective for isolating a chronically tight muscle, especially under conditions when it’s not possible to activate a certain muscle group by movement due to pain or dysfunction. Elderly or disabled persons for whom dynamic stretching is not possible, static stretching is of tremendous help to improve range of motion.
Dynamic stretching, in practice, is almost as effective as static stretching, particularly for athletes. A specific warm up routine consisting of dynamic movements for a specific movement pattern to be trained not only improves joint mobility but also revs up nervous system in a systematic way.
SMR techniques involve soft tissue mobilization, connective tissue massage and loosening up of overly tight fascia (an elastic connective tissue wrap over muscles). Tools such as foam rollers, tennis/lacrosse balls, sticks, and bars are used for self-massage, along with techniques like trigger point therapy and active release technique.
PNF stretching techniques are based on neuromuscular responses of autogenic inhibition and reciprocal inhibition. Most of the techniques practiced are comprised of two processes in PNF (McAtee RE):
- Eccentric Isotonic Contraction–when the muscle lengthens while resisting an applied force. For example, loaded stretching technique¹.
- Isometric Muscle Contraction–when the muscle remains the same length while contracting. Example, eccentric quasi-isometric technique².
Putting It All Together
Here’s a basic plan to utilize the stretching routine for general purpose.
Daily Static Stretching Routine
Hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. You can hold up to two minutes for a very tight muscle group. Repeat 2-3 times or as necessary.
Hip Flexor Stretch with Reach
Thoracic Spine Rotation
Shoulder Internal Rotator Stretch
Daily Dynamic Mobility Drills
Perform each drill for a number of 10 repetitions for 2-3 sets or as necessary.
2. Back Rolls
3. Fire Hydrant Circles:
Rotate your leg first clockwise, and then in the anti-clockwise direction.
4. Trunk Rotations
5. Mountain Climbers
6. Frog Stance Sways:
Sway forward and backward in a controlled manner.
7. Shoulder Dislocators
8. Band Pull-apart
9. Wall Facing Squats
- Loaded Stretching Technique
In this method, you use a relatively heavy resistance (but not so heavy to lose form & control) to stretch out the tight muscle eccentrically in a slow and controlled tempo taking about 5 to 8 seconds. Pause at the maximum stretch for a split second and reverse the motion under control. Start with 8 to 10 reps and slowly progress up to 20 reps. Try to stretch a bit more on each rep. Use this technique on the last set of your tight muscle group.
2. Eccentric Quasi-Isometric Technique
In this technique you hold the stretched out position of your muscle group under resistance. You slowly stretch the muscle into eccentric and hold the rep at the max stretch. Time of hold is 60 seconds repeated 3 -4 times. Start with a sensible weight and slowly increase weight as your strength to hold the max stretch increases. The muscles stretch deeper as the fatigue sets during the hold leading to an improved range of motion. Don’t lose muscle control, muscles should stay under contraction at all time.
- Effect of static stretching on prevention of injuries for military recruits. Mil Med 2003: 168: 442–446. , , , ,
- Arnold G Nelson, Nicole M Driscoll, Dennis K Landin, Michael A Young, and Irving C Schexnayder. Acute effects of passive muscle stretching on sprint performance. Journal Of Sports Sciences Vol. 23 , Iss. 5,2005.
- Altered reflex sensitivity after repeated and prolonged passive muscle stretching. J Appl Physiol 1999: 86: 1283–1291. , ,
- High-school football injuries: effects of a post-halftime arm-up and stretching routine. Fam Pract Res J 1992: 12 (2): 131–139. ,
- Dagenais, Marc (December 2011) Softball Training Tips – Do you know how to stretch? softballperformance.com
- Prevention of soccer injuries. Supervision by doctor and physiotherapist. Am J Sports Med 1983: 11: 116–120. , ,
- Different strategies for sports injury prevention in an America’s Cup Yachting Crew. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2009: 41: 1587–1596. ,
- Liebenson C: Rehabilitation of the Spine Ð A Practitioners Manual. 2nd edition Williams and Wilkins. 2006.
- McAtee RE, Charland J. Facilitated stretching: assisted and unassisted PNF stretching made easy. 2nd ed. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, 1999.
- Prentice, William E. (2003) Principles of Athletic Training, McGraw Hill.
- Effects of stretching on upper-body muscular performance. J Strength Cond Res 2008: 22: 1279–1285. , , , , , , , , , , ,
- Weerapong, Pornratshanee; Hume, Patria A.; Kolt, Gregory S. (2004). “Stretching: Mechanisms and Benefits for Sports Performance and Injury Prevention”. Physical Therapy Reviews. 9 (4): 189–206.
- Winchester et al (2009). A single 30-s stretch is sufficient to inhibit maximal voluntary strength. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. Vol 80 (2) pp. 257-261.