Stretching the truthNovember 28, 2011
A few weeks ago I read an article in The Weekend Australian on the topic of ‘stretching’ which concerned me somewhat. The piece in question was styled like editorial, implying it had factual basis and was from a creditable source. It featured in the sports section under the ‘Fit to Print’ column which I am now convinced should be retitled ‘Unfit to Print’.
The writer, a Personal Trainer, starts out declaring that a ‘warm-up and down should occur on the stretching mat’, going on to explain that ‘stretching cold muscles warms them up’ and ‘drastically reduces the chance of injury’. In my opinion, the only thing this writer is stretching with this theory is the truth!
Without question, there is a place for stretching in any good fitness regime but it’s not doubled over on a fitness mat pre-exercise. In fact, I believe the static stretching of cold muscles is the fastest way to an injury. I have even been known to test my new Physios by asking them to present a summary of all studies that demonstrate how stretching prevents injuries. I am asking the impossible. They simple don’t exist.
There was, however, a study carried out by Kapooka Health Centre’s Physiotherapy Department on Australian Army’s 1st Recruit Training Battalion which supports my view on the static stretching warm-up theory.
The study of 1,538 male army recruits investigated the effect of muscle stretching during warm-up on the risk of exercise-related injury. It concluded ‘a typical muscle stretching protocol performed during pre-exercise warm-ups does not produce clinically meaningful reductions in the risk of exercise-related injury in army recruits’. Report abstract available here.
From my learnings and experience, the single most important means of preparation for sport is an active warm-up which involves slow controlled movements through the full range of motion. An active warm-up should take 10-15 minutes and the intensity should be dictated by the nature of your intended activity.
For example, if you your musculotendonous units will be undergoing relatively gentle contraction-stretch cycles – experienced during such activities as running, riding or swimming – then your warm-up should purely involve carrying out that same activity at a slow speed, gradually building to the desired pace by the 10 minute mark. If you are preparing to partake in more dynamic contraction-stretch cycles – experienced during such activities as football, netball or hockey – then your warm-up should involve a slow jog, followed by 5 or 10 minutes of plyometric exercise specific to that sport.
So, while I find the basis of The Weekend Australian ‘Fit to Print’ article a far stretch from being accurate, I do believe appropriate stretching at the relevant time to be a significant component of a complete fitness regime – just not as a warm-up before exercise!
Stretching will help increase flexibility, reduce muscle tension and improve your circulation if performed on a regular basis, directly after you have completed an active warm-up and again after your fitness activity.