To stretch or not to stretch?

Recently I have taken up wrestling as a sport and just like when I did gymnastics as a child and teenager, the training sessions follow a very similar format – a long warm up period followed by the main training session and ending with a cool down. During one class I was involved in a discussion about new studies that have been done suggesting that warm up sessions should not involve static stretching. Static stretching for those who don’t know is the method whereby you hold the stretch for a period of time, then relax.

Two new studies have been published recently that have set the sports and exercise worlds talking, casting doubt into whether the way we have been warming up for all these years, is not only a waste of time but actually counter-productive.

The studies basically found that static stretching in top atheletes:

-Reduces strength in muscles by 5.5% with a greater impact if the single stretch is held for 90 seconds or more (for less than 45 seconds the impact is minimal)

-Reduces power in muscles by approximately 2%

-Reduces explosive power by a maximum of 2.8%

With these results in mind you could therefore say that static stretching of 45 seconds or more would disadvantage top athletes or for those competing in strength or explosive power sports. The study however doesn’t specify for what period of time following the stretch that this effect lasts.

So, how does this study affect us and the way we warm up? Looking at the percentage decrease in strength, power and explosive power, for the professional or top athlete, where every ounce of force or mille-second of speed is essential, these quantities are significant. For most of us however this is not the case. Also mentioned in the study is the duration of the stretch. For the majority of people a warm up stretch lasts for approximately 10 seconds, well under the 45 second limit where static stretching can have an impact on performance. Finally, the study doesn’t mention anything in regards to endurance sports and so therefore cannot really be included in the discussion.

Stretching does exactly what it says it is supposed to do. It stretches muscles, tendons and fascia, allowing easier and less restricted ranges of movement. The downside to this being that as the muscle fibres are less contracted, they are less able to store energy resulting in decreased strength and explosive power.

Whilst playing sports most of us use our bodies more dynamically then we do with other activities in our lives. Typing at a desk has our arms in front of us. To suddenly play tennis without opening up our shoulders means that the muscles which have become accustomed to a shortened position, are suddenly stretched without warning. A warm up stretch beforehand, makes the motion less of a shock and the muscles more able to handle the increased range required. If not, sprains and strains can easily occur.

Stretching has another function however not mentioned in these studies and that is of increasing body awareness. Whenever we slow down, notice our breath, sense our bodies and the feelings of tension within our muscles and ligaments, we immediately become more in tune with ourselves and less likely to cause harm or injury.

As flexibility is a key area of health and protection against injury, my general advice would be to spend a minimum of one hour, at least once a week, stretching or taking part in a yoga class to maintain flexibility and tissue elasticity. During the remainder of the week shorter periods of stretching can be done working on areas specific to each individual. Having an assessment carried out by one of our qualified osteopaths will allow maximum benefits to be achieved in minimal time. I believe for those who take part in sports and activities, a warm up is essential and should be a combination of static and dynamic stretches and other movements designed to get the blood pumping and the heart beating a little faster.

For your personalised stretching assessment, book an appointment with one of our trained osteopaths.

Christian Paesano
Osteopathic Physician
B Sc(Hons) Ost. Med, D.O. D.N.