The Sit-and-Reach test for flexibility. There isn’t anyone who missed out on it in grade school. Put your feet in the metal box, push the bar as far as you can without lifting your knees off the ground and voila, your flexibility is precisely and accurately measured. Unfortunately, flexibility might not be all it’s cracked up to be. While incredibly important to gymnasts and dancers, stretching might not be beneficial to all types of athletes.
Recently, researchers have been exploring the exact benefits of stretching before playing a sport and how it can improve, or be a detriment, to athletic performance. Most of the research is based on the fact that muscle fibers are like rubber bands, they stretch and recoil in proportion to their tightness. You would much rather be snapped with a loose rubber band than a tight one, and your muscles are just the same. The tighter a muscle is, the more force it can produce at a moment’s notice. So why would anyone want to loosen their muscles up before participating in a sport?
The short answer is that it depends what you’re doing. Flexibility is a measure of range of motion (ROM), or the range through which a joint can move freely through extension and flexion. Normal ROMs around the hips, ankles and knees are integral for moving a joint in almost any athletic movement, and increased ROM can reduce muscle stiffness and risk of muscle strain injury. Larger than normal ROMs are necessary for specialty athletes like gymnasts, hockey goalies and dancers who perform movements such as splits.
Unfortunately, performing a few minutes of static stretching immediately before heading to the floor exercise won’t improve your ROM. A 2004 study in the September/October issue of Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that to derive benefits from static stretching, it needs to be done regularly. Gymnasts, goalies and dancers spend years working on their flexibility and practice stretching every day. The gym regular who does some static stretching in close proximity to exercising doesn’t require the same kind of dedication. That exact kind of stretching was discounted again in a 2012 study done by The University of Northampton (UK). After reviewing earlier studies, researchers found holding static stretches for a minute, or to the point of discomfort, right before exercising was a detriment to performance, while stretches held for 30 seconds were not. The stretches used in these studies were designed to stretch muscles like the hamstring and quadriceps, not to increase ROM around a joint and the difference is distinct. It doesn’t matter how much force your muscle can produce if it isn’t able to move through the required ROM to perform the activity correctly. What’s the lesson?
It’s not ‘stop stretching and you’ll be faster, stronger and jump higher than ever’. The lesson from this research is if you like stretching, keep at it, although you’re better off waiting until after you’ve exercised to do it and if you don’t like stretching, that’s OK, too. A flexibility routine that ensures proper ROM around the hips, ankles, shoulders and knees is an important part of any fitness program, but being able to do a split or reach past your toes isn’t. The type and duration of your stretching needs to be based on the kinds of activities you engage in on a regular basis and what your goals are. There is no one size fits all flexibility routine that works for everyone, so take some of what you learned here and find what’s best for your body.
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