Thoughts — Smart Stretching

Patients often ask me things like “I need to stretch more, right?” “Should I do yoga?”

The short answer has four parts:

  • Flexibility is a good thing, but…
  • I have treated many, many yoga injuries.
  • There is little scientific evidence that stretching before exercise prevents sports injuries.
  • Your athletic performance is unlikely to be better immediately after stretching.

Muscles contain sensory receptors which detect changes in muscle length. One of their functions is to trigger a protective reflex which tightens muscles when they are at their limit. Looked at that way, a normal stretching routine is an attempt to override one of your body’s natural defenses against injury.

For example, a typical hamstring stretch trains the muscle to relax when the knee is fully extended, but in that position the hamstring really should be activated to help stabilize the knee. If you were to successfully “train” your body to go too far, you could injure yourself.

Loosening up for athletics with static stretching won’t help you perform better, either. In a recent (2008) study conducted at the University of Nevada, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. This is consistent with other studies which have found that static stretching may decrease muscle strength by as much as 30 percent.

Flexibility is good, though, and you can limber up for athletics effectively and safely. A technique known as dynamic stretching – stretching muscles while moving – increases power, flexibility and range of motion. In dynamic stretching, muscles get a message to perform, not to tighten up. Here are three moves to try.

“Frankenstein Kicks, Inch Worms, and Butt Kicks/High Knees

Frankenstein Kicks: Walk forward in a straight line while kicking your leg and reaching towards your toes with the opposite hand. Don’t overstretch. It won’t help.

Inch Worms: From a standing position with your feet slightly apart, stiffen your abdominal muscles to stabilize your spine. Bend forward from your hips and extend your arms in front of your body while slowly lowering your torso until you can place your hands on the floor. You may need to bend your knees slightly. Begin to walk your hands forward until you reach a push-up position. Then carefully walk your hand back towards your feet.

Butt Kicks/High Knees: While either running or walking, kick your butt then swing your knees high towards your chest.

A good stretching routine is an excellent way to increase your flexibility and range of motion, as long as you’re careful. But try scheduling your yoga class after your workout. You’ll get the best results from static stretching, most safely, after you’re warmed up.