Science says...

By Brian Cole, Personal Training Associates


... to prove something, we must meet three standards. It must be measurable, reproducible and predictable.

Well, hundreds of scientific research studies for more than 10 years have all come to the same conclusion: There is no benefit to stretching before physical activity. Whether it's running, golf, football, strength training or yard work. No benefit.

I'm going to share some science with you and then share what I think is the best way to incorporate this information into our activities. I enjoy reading and learning this stuff but by "sharing science," I don't mean talking about motor neurons, intramural muscle fibers, afferent axon synapses, Golgi tendon organs, reciprocal inhibition, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, etc. (I know, I know, you really wanted me to go into all that).

First, let's clarify: Flexibility and safe, comfortable joint range of motion (ROM) are definitely what we want. Pre-activity stretching is just not the way to achieve it.

What is stretching? Old gym classes taught ballistic stretching, where we kind of bounced down to touch our toes. For years now that's been proven counter productive and dangerous because muscles act to protect themselves by tightening. That knowledge has worked its way into mainstream thinking.

I remember when running 10k's and marathons we were told to warm-up before we did our pre-race stretches. Don't try to stretch cold muscles. And the way to stretch was not bouncy ballistic but static stretching. Go to comfortable end range, hold for 30 to 60 seconds and then carefully sink further. We would experience an increase of ROM.

That's also the way I've taught clients. But up-to-date research indicates the muscles are developing a temporary stretch tolerance, which offers no benefit in injury prevention or performance. While this is a safe way to stretch, it offers nothing when done before an activity.

There is also passive stretching, where someone else stretches you as you relax. There are also other (contract-relax, PNF...) stretching techniques but we'll stop here.

Don't let anyone else stretch you. Not your coach, massage therapist, trainer—not even yourself. Huh? As in using your arms to pull your legs into greater ROM than they can move on their own. (The exception is a physical therapist. He or she is educated in this and is working in rehabilitation situations.)

Am I being a bit cautiously over-the-top? Yes. Definitely. Always.

Increasing our flexibility and our joint ROM is only beneficial if we maintain joint stability and alignment. Overstretching can be counter productive and can lead to unstable joints later in life. And flexibility needs vary with individuals and with activities. A dancer has different needs than a golfer.

So what should we do before physical activity? Warm up. Turns out that old pre-running advice was right about one thing: Warm up first. But then don't bother stretching at all. Pre-activity warm ups are clearly proven to help prevent injury and to improve performance.

OK, but warm up how? Think of it as increasing how far you can move yourself, not how far you can stretch. Stretching is usually done in straight planes of motion but that's not how we move. A full body warm up feels good and is slow, steady, controlled, with no momentum. Make up your own routine that includes lifting and lowering your arms, your legs, your whole body. Step high, do side to side lunges, reach, rotate—all slowly with no momentum. Move everything every way.

For how long? That too varies individually but until you feel warmed up.

Oh, and then when you're all finished with your golf game or your running or your dancing, if you like to stretch, please relax and stretch. After your activity. But be sure to do it slowly, gently and enjoy it.

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