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A number of studies have come out over the last few months that suggest that pre-exercise static stretching will impair your sports performance. As in, you won’t go as fast, or lift as much weight. In some cases, it seems to have  quite an impact – this NY Times article cites a study that found that the strength of stretched muscles can decrease as much as 5.5% compared to their pre-stretched state. A recently published Brazilian study quoted in this weekend’s Globe found that after static stretches, runners ran slower and felt like they were working harder. No one wants that! However, in reporting on this, the media often gives the impression that all stretching is pointless.

But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, I believe that it’s important to consider what these studies are actually asking. Finding out that stretching doesn’t improve athletic performance for specific activities is great – but what are other reasons for stretching? Can it still be useful? I think the answer is an unequivocal yes – and here’s why.

First, even the articles noted above recognize that stretching increases joint range of motion, so for sports that require good range, it’s still recommended.

Second, the Globe article quotes Dr. Brian MacIntosh of the University of Calgary’s Human Performance Lab saying “Presumably we stretch to increase flexibility, but those who recommend stretching do so without assessment of initial flexibility.”

I completely agree that this is a major problem. No one wants to spend time stretching and have no idea if they’re actually achieving results. That’s one of the reasons that Restorative Exercise™ is so awesome – by using objective markers (known as alignment points), you can clearly measure your changes.  What’s more, the stretches we use are extremely precise. Most people, when they stretch, are unaware of the sneaky tricks the body uses to avoid stretching the tight areas that are supposed to be the target of the stretch. In RE, we stabilize the body parts that surround the stretching area so that you can actually stretch the spots you think you’re stretching, as well as measure the results before and after.

For example, forward bends are supposed to stretch the hamstrings – the short, tight, and underused but very important muscles at the backs of the thighs. Forward bends appear often lot in yoga, where people perform multiple, super deep forward bends in every class. Here’s a demonstration of a nice, deep forward bend:

Pretty impressive, right?

Pretty impressive, right?

So although it’s very awesome that I can reach the ground, this is not actually showing that I have long hamstrings. I’ve moved my pelvis and distorted my back so that I can put my hands on the floor – which means that I’m actually stretching the overused muscles of my lower back, rather than my hamstrings, which are having a lovely day doing absolutely nothing and not changing in the slightest. The true limit of my hamstrings is reached here:

Not really very impressive at all.

Not really very impressive at all.

My torso doesn’t move as much, but here my back is protected and my hamstrings are at the boundary of their length, which is where I can actually make a change. By doing this stretch or other Restorative Exercise™ stretches regularly, you tell your body that you need more length in the muscles that have shortened over time as the result of usage patterns that do not require long muscles (aka sitting a lot). Your body responds by adding more muscle units – called sarcomeres – to your short, tight muscles, and the results are a) greater range of motion,  b) higher metabolism, c) greater circulation to the muscles, which means more cellular regeneration, which means more health, and d) more mechanically correct movement which means less wear and tear on your joints and connective tissues.

In short, the Restorative Exercise™ alignment points allow you to have a constant and ongoing initial assessment of your flexibility, and how it changes over time,  as well as providing a specific goal for where you want to end up. They give you an objective starting place and an objective ending place, so that your individual needs are specifically met. When you can move your body and achieve all the alignment markers at the same time, it doesn’t mean just mean that you’re flexible, it means that now you are moving in the way that best nurtures the health of your entire body.

Finally, the article explores whether stretching can help avoid injuries. It doesn’t offer a clear answer, but does suggest that injuries might be decreased if you had the right stretching regime:

“Ideally, a targeted stretching routine would address any limitations in your particular body that are relevant to the specific activities you take part in.”

Restorative Exercise™ is a targeted stretching routine that addresses limitations in your particular body that are relevant to your specific daily living activities. You never even think about the accumulated micro-injuries that you get while you stand to do dishes or walk around in high heels, but these are the ones that will come back to haunt you as you age, unless you start moving in ways that don’t cause them. To change this, you need to get back muscle length – which is what you get when you stretch. So my answer to the Globe is that stretching, far from being an exercise in nothingness, is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your chances of injury and increase your health, provided that you do it the right way. As far as improving your sports performance, however, I’d agree that it may not be the best answer.*

*Caveats to this as well – all the quoted studies look at static stretching, pre-activity. It would be interesting to see comparisons with pre-activity dynamic stretching, or post-activity stretching impacts.

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