By Dr. G. John Mullen, PT, DPT, CSCS of Swimming Science, Owner of COR PT , Creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review, Swimming Troubleshooting System , and Mobility for Swimmers System , Swimming World correspondent
SANTA CLARA, California, April 3. THE past articles on static stretching discussed the issues with prescribing general static stretching programs. Hopefully, these pieces question your current use of stretching.
However, static stretching isn’t all bad and although it does limit performance, these decrements may not be noticeable! Individualized static stretching can improve biomechanics and force production when the modality is correct. Static stretching also helps with recovery and decreasing the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight system).
Static Stretching on Range of Motion
Many seek increases in range of motion, but one must question if this is truly necessary. In sports, one simply needs the range of motion to perform the task, yet many use a sit-and-reach or forward bend as their main stretching program, even though this movement is absent in the sport. The main method for improving range of motion is through the desired motion.
Playing a sport through the maturation years will result in the necessary ranges of motion, as muscles likely mold to the demands necessary, noted in baseball players (Crockett 2002).
Stretching does seem to improve range of motion (Harvey 2002; Decoster 2005; Davis 2005; Fasen 2009). Although, this range of motion likely increases after acute and chronic stretching programs, as stretching increases one’s ability to tolerate a stretch (Halbertsma 1994; Magnusson 1996; Weppler 2010). Just as there is neural strengthening, there is neural stretching or improving one’s capacity to stretch. One must question the use of static stretching for improving ROM, as simply playing the sport or eccentric training can improve range of motion to the same degree (Crockett 2002; Nelson 2004).
The current literature seems conclusive that static stretching for four to eight weeks for 15 to 30 seconds three days a week will improve hamstring ROM (Fasen 2009; Davis 2005). However, with other means of improving ROM available, one must question if more ROM is necessary, and if so, when should one seek this improvement in ROM?
Static Stretching on Neural Recovery
Neural recovery measures the activity of the sympathetic (fight or flight system) system. Static stretching appears to improve sympathetic system activity, as less flexible patrons have a rapid increase in parasympathetic activity. Stretching sessions including multiple exercises and sets acutely changed the sympathovagal balance in subjects with low flexibility, especially enhancing the postexercise vagal modulation and heart rate variability over a 28-day period (measures of the sympathetic system) (Farinatti 2011; Mueck-Weymann 2004).
Anything can help an athlete if it addresses their limitations and if the athlete believes in its effectiveness. Static stretching is no different, making individualized programs essential for improvements of limit sport specific range of motions or recovery.
However, general static stretching programs are a waste of time! This was the case with our original high school swimmer mentioned in part one. After discontinuing the hamstring stretching, manual therapy at the psoas, iliacus, quadratus lumborum and piriformis was performed. After about 20 minutes of this manual therapy, his range of motion improved from him being able to touch his knees to touching his ankles. After this, he was instructed in flexion-biased based core stability exercises, starting with the march, straight leg raise, and hip abduction with band. He performed about 10 minutes of these exercises with strict coaching and feedback. After the stability exercises, his range of motion improved from his ankles to touching the floor with no pain or limitations.
These improvements in one session are not uncommon, but are only part of the rehabiliation process. The feeling of “tightness” will return if proper spine hygiene and continual improvement on soft tissue and core stability are not performed. Lastly, motor control (muscle timing) requires addressing for complete resolution and future prevention.
Clearly, general stretching is not appropriate for all as it can cause instability and decrease force production. However, static stretching can help those with limited range of motion (adaptive shortening) and elevated sympathetic nervous systems. Prescribe your mobility programs wisely!
Interested in learning more on static and dynamic stretching? How about self myofascial releases and other forms of mobility? Check out the Mobility for Swimmers System .
1. Crockett HC, Gross LB, Wilk KE, Schwartz ML, Reed J, O’Mara J, Reilly MT, Dugas JR, Meister K, Lyman S, Andrews JR.Osseous adaptation and range of motion at the glenohumeral joint in professional baseball pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 2002 Jan-Feb;30(1):20-6.
2. Davis DS, Ashby PE, McCale KL, McQuain JA, Wine JM. The effectiveness of 3 stretching techniques on hamstring flexibility using consistent stretching parameters. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Feb; 19(1):27-32.
3. Fasen JM, O’Connor AM, Schwartz SL, Watson JO, Plastaras CT, Garvan CW, Bulcao C, Johnson SC, Akuthota V. A randomized controlled trial of hamstring stretching: comparison of four techniques. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):660-7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318198fbd1
4. Harvey L, Herbert R, Crosbie J. Does stretching induce lasting increases in joint ROM? A systematic review. Physiother Res Int. 2002;7(1):1-13. Review.
5. Decoster LC, Cleland J, Altieri C, Russell P. The effects of hamstring stretching on range of motion: a systematic literature review. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2005 Jun;35(6):377-87. Review.
6. Farinatti PT, Brand?o C, Soares PP, Duarte AF. Acute effects of stretching exercise on the heart rate variability in subjects with low flexibility levels. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jun;25(6):1579-85.
7. Magnusson SP, Simonsen EB, Aagaard P, Dyhre-Poulsen P, McHugh MP, Kjaer M. Mechanical and physical responses to stretching with and without preisometric contraction in human skeletal muscle. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1996 Apr;77(4):373-8.
8. Halbertsma JP, G?eken LN. Stretching exercises: effect on passive extensibility and stiffness in short hamstrings of healthy subjects. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1994 Sep;75(9):976-81.
9. Weppler CH, Magnusson SP.Increasing muscle extensibility: a matter of increasing length or modifying sensation? Phys Ther. 2010 Mar;90(3):438-49. doi: 10.2522/ptj.20090012. Epub 2010 Jan 14. Review
10. Mueck-Weymann M, Janshoff G, Mueck H. Stretching increases heart rate variability in healthy athletes complaining about limited muscular flexibility. Clin Auton Res. 2004 Feb;14(1):15-8.
Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the owner of COR PT, strength and conditioning consultant, creator of the Swimmer’s Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.