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, February 26. THE role of static stretching remains prominent in swimming despite questionable scientific support. Static stretching likely began many centuries ago. In fact, some cultures feel stretching helps with vitality and is a sign of good health.
In sports, many consider static stretching an essential aspect of warm-up. Most programs perform static stretching after a period of general aerobic warm-up. Other programs use static stretching for improvement in range of motion and preventing injuries. Unfortunately, limited research supports the claims surrounding static stretching. Many feel stretching elongates the muscle or muscle fibers, but this is not demonstrated in the literature. Others perform short stretching (seen in the morning or during yawning) because it “feels good.” Unfortunately, the subjectivity of “feeling good” is difficult to quantify, making the applicability questionable.
I’ll never forget working with a 14-year-old swimmer with chronic low back pain. This young man saw a physical therapist once a month for six months. This PT prescribed him excessive hamstring stretching, thinking this was the cause of pain. After six months of hamstring stretching, he did not have range of motion improvements and had continued low back pain. After meeting him, it was clear his tight hamstrings were compensating, an attempt to stabilize the spine. In fact, the hamstrings tightness was likely keeping him out of more pain, as they were protecting excessive spinal movement.
During our first session, I recommended discontinuing hamstrings stretching, with him replying “but it feels good.” This suggestion came with groans, because just because something feels good doesn’t make it healthy. If someone has low back pain related to instability, then more range of motion exacerbates the problem. If your low back is unstable, then more uncontrolled range of motion increases the spinal stress. The reason stretching feels better is the pulling on a nerve, specifically the sciatic nerve, impairs the nerve conduction velocity and decreases pain signaling. Even without pain, hamstring stretching and improving range of motion can impair muscle stiffness and maximal force production. Similar to a rubber band, if you pull back a loose rubber band and a stiff rubber band, which will shoot further? In runners, decreased muscle stiffness is inversely correlated with running speed. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with any studies assessing swimmers and muscle stiffness. Although stiffness isn’t as important in swimming, due to the lower degree of joint loading, implication must be questioned.
In life, one only needs smooth motion during the task, yet many use a sit-and-reach test for sporting or athletic potential. Yet, improving range of motion occurs through performing the desired motion.
Playing a sport during maturity molds the muscles for the desired task, shown in baseball players (Crockett 2002). This series will unveil the research on static stretching and make a case for its use. For sports, range of motion deficits guide the use of static stretching. In fact, I use static stretching everyday for sports and physical therapy. However, the use is individualized and specific. This series gives you the information for personal implementation. Just realize that general long duration static stretching is often a waste of time!
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.
By 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.