1. NOT THE SAME. Some people believe that stretching and warming up are more or less the same. They’re not. Warming up is designed to prepare an individual for the demands of the physical activity that follows. As such, a few minutes of engaging in low-intensity whole-body exercise (e.g., jogging in place) can be an appropriate warm-up. Warming up should always precede stretching because stretching cold muscles can result in an injury to the affected musculature.
2. MIXED RESULTS. Studies that have attempted to identify the benefits of stretching have produced inconclusive results. Some investigations have found that stretching can be quite helpful, whereas others have determined that minimal, if any, benefits occur. Anecdotally, however, advocates of stretching promote several positive by-products of this particular form of exercising, including increased range of motion in the joints, improved muscular coordination, reduced level of muscle tissue tension, and enhanced level of blood circulation to various parts of the body.
3. ON TARGET. When individuals stretch, they should focus on the major muscles and joints in their body (e.g., legs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders) - the ones that likely will be involved in the activity that follows. It also is important for a stretching regimen to be bilateral. Both sides of the body should be stretched.
4. JERKY CONSEQUENCES. Stretching exercises should be performed slowly and smoothly. Stretching exercises done in a bouncing manner can be counterproductive. Not only can undue stress be placed on the joint(s), small tears in the muscle(s) also can occur. Furthermore, because these tears can leave scar tissue as the muscle heals, which will tighten the muscle even further, the net result can be that the exerciser will wind up less flexible and more prone to pain.
5. ABSTAIN FROM PAIN. Although exercising should not be painful, stretching may cause some individuals to experience a degree of muscle soreness for a few days. Pain, on the other hand, is a signal that a person has stretched too far. The underlying expectation while stretching should be to feel tension, rather than pain, in the involved muscles and connective tissues.
6. EXERCISE CAUTION. On occasion, individuals need to be alert to the fact that under some circumstances, they should either abstain from stretching entirely or modify their stretching regimen as appropriate. For example, stretching an already strained muscle or ligament may cause it further harm. Stretching also should be avoided when a joint or a muscle is inflamed, infected, or injured or when a sharp pain is felt in a joint or muscle.
7. MORE THAN ONE ALTERNATIVE. Four basic types of stretching techniques exist - ballistic, dynamic, static, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). Of the four options, ballistic stretching is not recommended because of the safety issues attendant to the bouncing involved. Dynamic stretching commonly is used as a supplemental part of an individual’s warm-up routine. Static stretching and PNF stretching, on the other hand, are widely used methods for increasing range of motion (flexibility).
8. TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING. The findings of a few research studies suggest that individuals with an inordinate level of flexibility actually may be susceptible to a greater risk of injury particularly if the excessive flexibility compromises joint integrity. On the other hand, it should be noted that exceptional flexibility and structurally sound joint integrity are not mutually exclusive. A person can have both.
9. AGE AS A FACTOR. One of the common consequences of the so-called aging process is a loss of flexibility. The argument claims that such a loss is a natural, but inevitable, occurrence, which is often accompanied by a decline in functional ability, posture, and coordination and an increase in injury risk. Truth be known, however, the loss of flexibility in older adults is more the result of disuse of the body’s musculature rather than the inescapable by-product of advancing years.
10. THE GOLD STANDARD. With regard to an appropriate exercise prescription for stretching, the most authoritative organization in the world in such matters, American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), recommends engaging in flexibility training 2 to 3 days per week, holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds to mild discomfort and performing three to four repetitions per stretch. For PNF stretches, ACSM suggests that each repetition involves a 6-second contraction, followed by a 10- to 30-second assisted stretch.
James A. Peterson, Ph.D., FACSM, is a freelance writer and consultant in sports medicine. From 1990 until 1995, Dr. Peterson was director of sports medicine with StairMaster. Until that time, he was professor of physical education at the United States Military Academy.
Copyright 2010 by the American College of Sports Medicine.