Wait long enough-and read
widely-and you’ll be sure to find a study that finds in favour of something
you’ve always felt a bit guilty about: red wine at dinner, a little TV at
night, even the occasional martini (shaken, not stirred).
The current issue of the journal
of the American College of Sports Medicine features just such a report,
one that might confirm what you have long suspected: stretching before exercise
is a waste of time.
“Many athletes stretch their
muscles before exercise because they believe this reduces the risk of injury,”
says the article written by a team of Australians. “However, there is no
evidence that pre-exercise stretching does, in fact, reduce injury risk.”
Led by army physiotherapist Rod
Pope, researchers monitored 1,538 male army recruits for 12 weeks. Half of the
men performed a series of six leg stretches prior to basic training; the other
half did not. The study found no significant difference in the injury rate
between the two groups.
“We were able to rule out even
a quite small effect of stretching,” says Pope, who all but ordered the army
to stop bothering with the routine activity.
Although it has not been fully
studied, stretching tight muscles, or stretching after exercise, could be of
some benefit, he allows.
Debate about stretching is not
new, although the point of contention has not been if but rather when, which is
to say before or after workout.
“This is one of the most
controversial subjects,” says Ottawa fitness trainer Liz Lesh. “Ask 10
fitness experts and you’ll get 10 different opinions.”
In her opinion, serious
stretching should be saved for after a workout, when it’s much more
satisfying. “Your muscles are warmed up, you are more fluid.”
As for before, Lesh recommends
going through the motions during your warm- up, performing the exercise you are
about to do, but at a much lower intensity. “If you are about to squat with
weight,” for example, “do a set without a weight,” If you’re going out
for a run, start with a brisk walk.
Lisa Refausse, fitness director
at the Ottawa Athletic Club, agrees that the post-exercise stretch is crucial,
but adds that some people really do need to stretch before exercise.
Any flexibility exercises before
a workout should be preceded by a good warm-up, she cautions. Then, as you
stretch, “slowly recruit and stretch the muscle or mimic the upcoming
No matter what, or when, the
experts agree on one thing: you must listen to your body.
“A good stretch is performed
with no pain,” says trainer Duane Jones. “The stretch reflex is a nerve
reflex mechanism that signals the muscle to contract if you stretch too hard.
Most people do not heed the protective contraction and go beyond the stretch
limit and get injured.”
Jones recalls a time in the
1970s when coaches required elite athletes to stretch up to 60 minutes a day.
“Since that we have learned that an easy five to 10 minutes stretching
properly, before and after exercise, helps reduce injury.”
No matter when you decide to
stretch, you should heed the Six Rules of Stretching as put forward by Toronto
chiropractors Drs. Christopher Oswald and Stanley Basco in their comprehensive
guide on the hows and whys of the matter.
“Stretching is a tremendously
cost-effective method of preventing injuries, maintaining mobility, reducing
stress and enhancing performance and the quality of life,” they write in Stretching:
For Fitness, Health & Performance (Sterling
Here, then are the six rules:
- Warm up: Before you stretch, your muscles
should be warm. An efficient warm-up can include marching, walking in place
while swinging your arms, taking a warm shower or mimicking the sport you
are about to do.” The warm-up will increase muscle temperature, which
increases blood flow to the tissue, allowing the muscle fibres to respond
more quickly and efficiently to the stretch, the guide explains.
- Be Gentle:
“Do not force a muscle to stretch. All you should feel is a gentle
pull in the muscle. It should take approximately six to 10 seconds for the
internal muscle-protective mechanism to adapt to the new position.” Once
the muscle fibres relax and change their length, you should notice a gradual
decrease in the pulling, say the chiropractors. “At the end of 30 seconds,
you should feel almost no pulling sensation. If you still feel something,
you are stretching too far, which can result in a sore and stiff muscle.”
- Hold for 30 seconds: Anything less than 30
seconds will not give the nerves enough time to adapt to the new length and
alter the muscle tone. Oswald and Basco write. “If you cannot hold the
stretch comfortably for this long, then ease back.” Only one repetition
per muscle is required when done daily.
- Breathe: “Deep, rhythmic, abdominal breathing
helps to improve circulation to muscle tissues.”
- Do not bounce: “Always stretch slowly and
- Stretch both sides: Always stretch the right
and left sides, or the front and back. “This will enhance flexibility and
performance while reducing the risk of injury.”