Stretching the Truth

by Max Prokopy M Ed., CSCS, LMT, FMS-I

The world of human exercise performance has something in common with nutrition: expert clinical practice can oppose the broad trends underscored in research.  Add the sagging health of western populations to the milieu and heated debates are easy to find.  One must remember that human behavior, response, and research are messy.  This article attempts to shed light on one of the last decade’s most contentious subjects: the role of stretching in exercise performance.

By far, the most frequently examined and practiced modality is static (or passive) stretching.  A limb is moved into a position whereupon an individual feels a stretch.  The position is maintained until the stretch relaxes, often 15-60 seconds.  This much is clear: passive stretching induces a temporary increase in joint range of motion (ROM) and reduction in both power and strength1.  Holding length is related to the magnitude of ROM gain and strength loss2.  However, the changes are short-lived3 and can be offset by more dynamic activities of the muscle groups4.  Rather changing actual muscle length, static stretching mainly dulls the stretch sensation of the body’s nervous system.  Supporting evidence is that a right side limb experiences a strength loss after the left side has been stretched5.

Perhaps a performance deficit is acceptable if stretching can be shown to reduce the risk of injury.  In a comprehensive 2010 review of peer-reviewed literature6, McHugh and Cosgrave note:

            “With respect to the effect of pre-participation stretching on injury prevention a limited number of studies of varying quality have shown mixed results.  A general consensus is that stretching in addition to warm-up does not affect the incidence of overuse injuries.  There is evidence that pre-participation stretching reduces the incidence of muscle strains but there is clearly a need for further work.”

Thus, it would seem stretching might be a poor use of time or even counter-productive.  Indeed, numerous professional conditioning coaches and physiotherapists have written opinion papers and blogs saying exactly that.

However, concerns over stretching come with a major caveat.  The practical methodology of elite athletes and their performance coaches is quite different from the approach taken in research studies.  It is virtually unheard of to go directly from a static stretch to a full power or strength effort.  Time is inevitably spent on dynamic movements (skipping, lunging, carioca, bounding, etc.) which can offset observed power and strength reductions4,7.  The sequential process of stretching followed by dynamic movements has served thousands of athletes and coaches well.  The following warm-up protocol is widely (though not ubiquitously) employed by professional strength and conditioning coaches in the NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB, FIFA, NCAA, and other organizations.

Warm-up Protocol:

  1.  Self-myofascial release (SMR).  SMR involves 5-10 minutes of foam rolling or other self-massage techniques to improve blood flow and joint sensation (proprioception)8.
  2. Targeted passive or active stretching.  Specific areas of need are identified and stretches held for 20-60 seconds each.  Focus is placed on equalizing the left and right sides (symmetry).
  3. Exaggerated dynamic movements.  Lunging, reaching, lateral striding, etc., are performed for 10-20 meters each.
  4. Vigorous skipping, marching, sprinting, bounding, backwards running, etc., are performed for 10-20 meters each.

This author (M.P.) used the above protocol for an NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey team in 2010-2011.  Among 720 man-games (36 games x 20 dressing players), 0 man-games were lost due to muscular injury.  In 2009-2010 the same team had no professional conditioning coach.  It operated without the supervised protocol and suffered 38 man-games lost to injury (5.2%).  Similar anecdotal results have been reported by expert Michael Boyle9 who serves as the conditioning coach for Boston University ice hockey and numerous professional athletes.

It is possible elite athletes respond to stretching differently than the populations examined in research.  Either way, one aspect of stretching remains critically overlooked in both spheres.  The roles of the diaphragm and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) are under-appreciated.  Stretches are commonly performed to the point of wincing and shallow breathing.  This over-exertion engages the sympathetic, “fight or flight” arm of the ANS.  Putting the body into “survival mode” does not allow a subject to breathe properly and gain appreciation for new range of motion (ROM).

A superior method engages diaphragmatic breathing and the parasympathetic arm of the ANS.  This “rest and digest” response includes proper use of the respiration muscles.  Dr. Pavel Kolar of the Prague School uses such methods to “reboot” the neurodevelopmental pathway and stabilize correct joint movement.  The concepts herein merit an entire book but a practical experiment illustrates the point.

How to Properly Stretch with Diaphragmatic Breathing

  1. Pick a stretch that is familiar (e.g. downward dog, toe touch, wall calf stretch, etc.).
  2. Stretch to a position of shallow breath and moderate discomfort but not pain.  Hold for 45 sec.
  3. Stand up and allow for a minute of other activity.
  4. Perform the same stretch but apply diaphragmatic breathing and a relaxed face.  Diaphragmatic breathing is notsimply deep breathing.  It often must be re-learned in a stretched position:
    • Take a full breath in through the nose.  The belly should expand and the neck muscles relax.  Tilt the chest up and keep the neck long.
    • Purse the lips (or exhale through a straw) and gradually exhale.  Exhale completely, driving out all breath, about 15 seconds.
    • Wait 2 seconds and repeat a & b two more times.
  5. Appreciate differences in sensory and afferent responses to each method.

Despite intense professional discord, stretching remains a viable piece of the puzzle of human performance.  However, it must be done correctly and in the context of a proper warm-up.  Diaphragmatic breathing is critical to improving results.  Taking the time to learn the process correctly provides excellent returns on the investment.

For Further Reading

This author receives no financial incentives in recommending the following resources for their superior content:

  1. Fredrick A.  Stretch to Win.  2006.  Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
  2. Tsatsouline P.  Relax Into Stretch.  2010 3rd Ed.  Dragon Door, Little Canada, MN.
  3. Chaitow L.  Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Pattern Disorders.  2002.  Elsevier Health Sciences, Philadelphia, PA.

References

  1. Kokkonen, , J., A.G. Nelson, and A. Cornwell. Acute muscle stretching inhibits maximal strength performance.   Res Q Exerc Sport. 1998 69:411 – 415.
  2. Siatras TA, Mittas VP, Mameletzi DN, Vamvakoudis EA.  The duration of the inhibitory effects with static stretching on quadriceps peak torque production. J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jan; 22(1):40-6.
  3. Brandenburge, J, Pittney W, Leubbers P. Time course of changes in vertical-jumping ability after static stretching. Int JSport Phys Per. 2007;(2):170-181.
  4. Kay A, Blazevich A. Concentric muscle contractions before static stretching minimize, but do not remove, stretch-induced force deficits.  J Appl Phys.  2010 Mar;108(3):637-645.
  5. Cramer JT, Housh TJ, Weir JP, Johnson GO, Coburn JW, Beck TW. The acute effects of static stretching on peak torque, mean power output, electromyography, and mechanomyography.  Eur J Appl Phys 2005; 93:530-539.
  6. McHugh MP, Cosgrave CH. To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Apr; 20(2):169-81.
  7. Chu D.  Explosive Power and Strength.  1996.  Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
  8. Myers T.  Personal Communication. Perform Better Training Summit.  June 2010.
  9. http://strengthcoachblog.com/2011/03/30/anecdotal-proof-static-stretching-works/

*Image credit: FitHo

Max Prokopy is a first-year Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition PhD student who has certifications to and experience with training prep, collegiate and professional athletes with a particular focus on ice hockey.

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