As a child of the 1980’s, my recollection of P.E. classes at school seem to be dominated by endless ballistic stretches with kids bobbing up and down touching their toes in time with ‘Let’s Get Physical’ (or maybe it was ‘Xanadu’), doing star-jumps and burpees & stretching quickly and rapidly. Contrastingly, when we played sport in those days I can’t remember once being told to stretch, warm up or warm down before or after training or games!
In the 1990’s whilst studying physiotherapy, the tables were turned – we were taught that long, sustained stretching pre-sport was of limitless benefit, and told to avoid ballistic or quickfire stretching. And then over the last decade, ballistic stretching, burpees and even touching your toes has made a comeback, and a lot of people argue that sustained stretching is useless! So, should we stretch or not, and if so, how should we be stretching?
Let’s take a step back firstly.
Break down the aim of stretching into two groups – 1) warming up for activity, and 2) loosening tight muscular structures (muscles, tendons and the structures they join onto):
- The kids and P.E. teachers of the 80’s can pat themselves on the back for the former, as ballistic or fast, jerky stretching, is actually quite helpful as a warm up for specific activity. For example, if you are playing a kicking sport, then rapidly kicking your leg 10-20 times as a warm up is probably a much better way of stretching the specific kicking muscles than doing a sustained hamstring stretch. The same goes for trunk twisting actions pre-golf, and upper limb movements pre-throwing.
- And the latter type also has benefits, with the premise being that loosened muscles perform better and are less prone to injury. Also, looser muscles provide less tension on their adjoining joints and tendons, so that should lead to less stress and reduced injury risk on those structures too. Most physios and sport science professionals would agree on this basic premise, but to clarify further, this will really only be helpful when you have tight muscle groups in isolation; e.g. tight quadriceps (front of thighs), hamstrings (back of thighs), calves and pectorals (front of chest).
The evidence points to both types of stretching being useful for their purposes, however both types are much more effective after a 5-10 minute warm up (just enough to get a light sweat or increased breathing rate).
But what if these tight muscle structures don’t exist in isolation, as with most people? For example, tight calves or hamstrings are rarely tight for no reason – they are usually combined with tight ‘neural’ structures (for simplicity think nerves and their attachments that run from your lower back and meander through muscle and other tissue down your legs), weak opposing muscles (quadriceps), poorly operating core muscles and even pronating or rolling-in feet.
In this instances when there are other factors involved or chronic ongoing tightness, it is likely that there is a systemic cause of the muscle tightness, and whilst stretching may be helpful to relieve some of the symptoms, it is unlikely to be beneficial in preventing risk of injury. A physio assessment should provide some answers to the cause, and a course of treatment may involve hands-on therapy (myotherapy/remedial massage, mobilisation, dry needling), strengthening exercises, orthotics and yes, even stretching!