Stretching has been the target of much bad information. As a child we were always told to stretch before exercise or athletic events. I remember seeing pro athletes on TV getting into a stretch position and bouncing as if they were a bobble head toy..
Even as a child, I knew my body did not like the stretches I was often asked to do by coaches and teachers. I understood flexibility was a good thing. It simply did not feel as though stretching was the way to gain flexibility. In fact, the opposite appeared to be true. It was not until I was in my 20’s and took ballet classes that demanded a lot of stretching that I had my first pulled muscles. The stretching that was required in ballet helped me gain flexibility, it also led to injury.
It was about a decade later that I began to understand what was going on with injuries and stretching. At that time I was living in Denver and coaching kids, 12-18 years old in the sport of volleyball. The United States Olympic Training Center was in Colorado Springs, 75 miles away at that time. Junior’s coaches and their teams were welcome at the center. On several trips down there to observe the training methods of some of the best athletes in the world I heard stretching discussed.
Stretching was banned as a warm up exercise, for all of the athletes. Warm-ups were sport specific. This means that if you were a weight lifter you would warm up with weightlifting, but with light weights and slow movements. Volleyball players warmed up with slow specific volleyball skill exercises and progressed into limited action games that built into full out, full speed skills and games. Stretching was limited to a warm down exercise, performed only at the end of practice.
On a personal level this made me happy. I had been an advocate of stretching only after workouts for many years. My experience at the Olympic Training Center pointed out why stretching should only be done with a fully warmed up body. Here are some of the guidelines for stretching I learned as a coach and a chiropractor:
- Do not stretch an injured muscle. The brain is going to try to protect an injured muscle by tightening it. The same principle applies when a nerve is injured. Stretching an injury sets up a tug of war with the brain that you lose; either by not being able to stretch, or creating more pain. Once the injury is healed you may gradually, once again, reintroduce gentle stretches.
- The main lesson from the Olympic Training Center was,
do not stretch until you warm up. Stretches are not a warm up!
- Many people feel that if they bounce while they stretch the muscle will lengthen further. Once again the brain is going to override the effect of the stretch if you do this. We have built in nerve receptors that prevent this strategy from being effective, and it may even cause injury.
- Understand the limits of your stretch. Some people just try too hard. If you go past discomfort into the pain zone you are probably damaging the muscle.
- If you have not been trained in how to stretch specific muscles, then hire a trainer, or some other professional to teach you the basics of isolating a muscle for a stretch.
I believe the most effective stretches neither hold, nor bounce. They are a slow movement (I mean reeeaaalll slow, almost imperceptible movement) throughout the range of motion of a muscle. It is almost a static stretch, but not quite. The advantage to this is that the proprioceptive receptors in the tendons keep on delivering information to the brain throughout the entire stretch. This data is what allows the brain to alter the flexibility of the muscle.
A final note, chiropractic adjustments help the nervous system function at its highest possible level. This means that the proprioceptive input that stretching supplies will be even more effective if you are well-adjusted. So whether you are starting an exercise program, or competing at the highest level, chiropractic will help you do it better.