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When to Stretch

When to stretch, the age old question. I took my kids to the park to play. There were two soccer games going on at the sports ground. After watching Pendle Hill kids take a massive win I was watching the senior team warm up before their match. I noticed the typical old school approach to warming up. They kicked a few soccer balls around, took some shots at goal and then they get on the ground and undergo a regime of static stretching. I can’t really blame them, they haven’t been taught any better.

As a child all the way through my teens to first grade playing rugby it was always the same, static stretching after a warm up of touch football before getting into explosive sprinting, tackling and agility work. As a kid I really didn’t know any better and thought that this was best practice. Static stretching before explosive and dynamic activity. It makes sense in a way. It’s best to have lengthened muscle and increased range of motion before sprinting and lifting right?

When to stretch has always been and still is a source of major confusion. So when should you stretch? How should you stretch? This is a short overview of what is best practice based on the most recent research and practice.

When to Stretch: Static Stretching

Static stretching involves stretching a muscle to the end of its range of motion and then holding the stretch for anywhere from 10 seconds to several minutes. Think yoga.

Research has shown time and time again that static stretching can be detrimental to any kind of activity involving maximal or near maximal force and/or velocity. This includes sprinting, agility training, strength training, jumping etc.

When you statically stretch a muscle it becomes temporarily able to achieve a greater range of motion at the joint in which it primarily operates. Essentially the muscle relaxes. The problem here is twofold. First, static stretching causes the muscle to lengthen and relax. This allows the joint to operate through a greater range of motion. The relaxed muscle is less able to engage the stretch reflex in the event of over-extending the joint. This results in injury. Increasing range of motion is a gradual process and cannot be safely achieved in one session of stretching. Essentially the muscle gets over confident and allows you to put it through a larger range of motion causing tears and connective tissue damage.

Secondly, research has shown that a statically stretched muscle temporarily produces less force than an un-stretched muscle. Static stretching stimulates a blunted neuromuscular response. To understand this you must first understand the role of the stretch reflex. The stretch reflex is a neuromuscular response to a rapidly lengthened muscle that is forced to concentrically contract immediately after lengthening. Put simply, when a muscle rapidly lengthens and then contracts immediately afterwards the proprioceptor known as the muscle spindle, a function of the nervous system, will cause that contraction to be more forceful than if it were simply contracting without being preceded by a lengthening phase. This has two roles, the first being protection against injury. If you step the wrong way while changing and overstretch the groin for instance, the muscle reacts instantly by producing a forceful contraction to shorten the muscle and prevent tearing. Second, the stretch reflex works by more rapidly reversing an eccentric muscle contraction, which is simply lengthening under load. This allows more force to be generated at a greater velocity. This is exactly how plyometrics training works.

Statically stretching a muscle temporarily reduces the action of the stretch reflex. A blunted stretch reflex means less strength and less speed, sometimes as much as 40% less.

So when to stretch with regard to static stretching. Well static stretching is best used to create lasting adaptations to the length of a muscle, which in turn increases range of motion at the joint in which that muscle acts upon. So therefore static stretching is best used either immediately after a workout or as a stand-alone activity that is not commenced within a two-hour period preceding a workout. It must be noted that this should not be undertaken haphazardly. Some muscles need drastic lengthening, while other muscles are too long and loose already. Only stretch muscles that are tight and need the increased flexibility.

When to Stretch: Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching is stretching that involves moving a muscle only briefly through its full range of motion and then releasing and repeating multiple times. Dynamic stretching has long been thought of as useless and dangerous. However dynamic stretching is a useful tool when performed as part of a warm-up routine preceding dynamic activity such as sprinting or lifting.

When to Stretch: Ballistic Stretching

Ballistic stretching is often thought of as a high risk form of flexibility and mobility training, with many trainers and coaches completely disregarding it. Ballistic stretching is much like dynamic stretching with a forceful component. With dynamic stretching you are gracefully and gradually moving a muscle through its full range of motion very briefly. With ballistic stretching you are forcing a muscle slightly beyond its normal range of motion in a forceful manner. This can result in muscle tears and connective tissue injury.

Ballistic stretching is a useful tool for the seasoned athlete that has mastered control and awareness of their own body. It can be used after a warm up to prepare for highly dynamic activities where maximum range of motion may be required such as combat sports and gymnastics.

When to Stretch: PNF Stretching

PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. This may sound fancy and complex, which it is in science, but not in practice. PNF involves a static stretch held at near maximal range of motion followed by a static contraction of that muscle while holding that range of motion, followed by relaxing the contraction and stretching further then repeating with a contraction. This process is generally repeated several times during the stretching of a given muscle.

After a PNF stretch the muscle is able to be stretched well beyond the maximal range of motion of the un-stretched muscle. This is another piece of proprioceptive magic. The muscle spindle, as discussed earlier, facilitates the stretch reflex when a muscle is stretched beyond its maximal range of motion. PNF tricks the muscle spindle into switching off the over-protective stretch reflex, or at least reducing it. This allows the muscle to be stretched further. Each time the muscle contracts and then relaxes the stretch reflex is blunted slightly and the muscle can stretch further again.

PNF stretching is a useful tool either as stand-alone flexibility training or used at the same time you would normally perform static stretches.

Conclusion

When to stretch is a common question and arouses much confusion within the general public, athletes and even with coaches. Remember that before performing forceful and dynamic activities it is best to choose stretching that closely matches this activity and does not blunt or shut down the helpful stretch reflex, or stretch shortening cycle.

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