Mississauga Chiropractor Presents: To Stretch or Not To Stretch… That is My Question

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Categories: Health & Wellness Tips

Here’s another blog by a Mississauga Chiropractor…

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In high school, we always stretched before every practice and every game.  We didn’t exactly know why we stretched.  Our coaches told us to stretch to prevent injuries and become better athletes.  I stretched because it felt good.  But this advice that our coaches gave us was probably based more on oral folklore rather than science.  This wisdom that stretching was “good for you”, was likely passed down over the generations, however very little science & research has been done on it.

As a recreational athlete in University, I had many questions regarding the optimal dosage of stretching. How long should I hold my stretch? How frequently should I repeat my stretches?How much force should I generate when stretching? How long should I allow my tissues to recover in between stretches?  Even today, I am still searching the literature for the answer to these questions.  However, according to some recent research, there are some stretching myths that I would like to dispel.

Myth 1: Stretching will increase your flexibilityThe answer is no, in the short term.  When you stretch a tissue, it will initially elongate and then over time it will return to its original length.  So, there is no permanent change in tissue length.

In 1992, a spine mechanist, Stuart McGill conducted a study where he measured the rate of increased flexibility in the human spine.  The subjects were first asked to stand up and bend forward from the hip to measure their baseline range of motion.  Then they were asked to stretch their spine by sitting in a slouched position for 1 minute.

After this time, they were asked to stand up and bend forward again to re-measure their forward range of motion.  This process continued for 20 minutes, and they found that each subject was able to bend further & further each time because their tissues were gradually elongating.  On average, each subject gained about 5-6 degrees of forward bend after 20 minutes of slouching.

During the second part of the experiment, each subject was asked to walk around for about 20 minutes.  After each minute of walking, they were asked to bend forward again to re-measure their forward range of motion. At the end of the 20 minutes, they found that each subject had lost all the extra range of motion they had gained from slouching. So after an hour of not stretching, none of the subjects had any gain in range of motion. Thus, there was no gain in flexibility that was sustained.  Furthermore, they found that even though it took 20 minutes to gain some flexibility in the tissues, it took less than 20 minutes to lose it.

Myth 2: Stretching will make you a better athleteThe answer is not necessarily.  Stretching has been shown to temporarily reduce the amount of force the muscle can generate if it is held for a prolonged period of time.  By stretching for 20-60 seconds, there is a temporary reduction in muscle strength & power.

So if a sprinter or pitcher were to stretch before activity, they may not be able to generate the same amount of speed they can normally produce.  In the long term, if you stretch everyday for weeks, months & years, then there will be some effect on flexibility.  By stretching regularly, the muscle will gradually grow longer.  However, this is not necessarily a good thing.  Depending on the sport an athlete may play, it may serve them better to have short muscles rather than long ones.

For example, a cyclist would perform better with short hip flexor muscles in order to generate the right amount of power to pedal.  However, a runner would perform better with long hip flexor muscles in order to maintain long strides.  Thus a runner and a cyclist should not have the same flexibility profiles.

Stretching can improve performance only if a particular range of motion is required for a particular type of performance.  So a baseball pitcher or a volleyball player who needs to be able to wind up their arm, will need more shoulder flexibility because if they can’t get their arm back far enough, they won’t be able to  get any speed on the ball.

A runner or hurdler needs hamstring flexibility to get long stride length.  A gymnast, diver or figure skater who is judged based on their lines, need flexibility for quality performances.

Myth 3: Stretching will prevent injuriesThe answer is not necessarily.  Stretching can injure some joints in the body.  For example, by over-stretching the shoulder joint, you can increase joint laxity and hurt yourself.

Stretching also reduces the amount of discomfort that is felt when it is done in the short term.  When someone stretches their hamstrings repeatedly for 30 seconds over a 5 minute period, they will gradually allow their hamstring to stretch further.  The person does not feel discomfort, so they let they allow their leg to stretch closer to their limit before they start hurting their tissues.  However it is unclear whether this is good or bad, because it is not a very good protective mechanism.

Bottom Line: Some types of stretching are good while other types of stretching are bad.  From all the stretching you can do, the one that is most likely to hurt you is the prolonged slouched posture.  Slouching for 45 minutes – 2 hours at your office desk or at school will stretch your back, and this is bad for you.

If you are trying to increase flexibility, stretch at a different part of the day that is separate from your regular exercise or workout.  Concentrate on your proper technique where you do prolonged and repeated stretches.  Target the short muscles while protecting your long segments.  For example, protect your shoulder ligaments when you stretch your chest, and protect your back when you stretch your hip.

There is no blanket prescription for stretching.  It is based on a joint by joint or person by person basis.  With muscles like the hip or calf which generally get stiffer as you age, you may be able to stretch them as much as you want.   However, be more cautious when stretching your back or shoulder.  Some people may hurt themselves by stretching those joints because they may lead to instability.

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