Proper Stretching – Is there any such thing?
Will we ever come to a place where we have some definite guidelines for stretching properly? I believe we will, and here’s why…
by Brad Walker | First Published May 7, 2015 | Updated September 12, 2017
By the time I got to university in 1990, I’d already developed a keen interest in the field of sports coaching and athletic training. I was at university studying health science in sport and exercise, and I’d eagerly devour any new research I could get my hands on about how to train athletes more efficiently and effectively.
As I read through the latest and most advanced training methods other coaches and researchers were using, I started to notice a number of research articles emerging about this new form of training called: Strength Training.
The early days
Now I know this may seem quite odd to anyone who has worked in the strength and conditioning industry for less than 20 years, but stick with me because as you read through the rest of this article you’ll start to see a lot of similarities between what was happening in the strength training industry 25 years ago, and what’s happening with stretching and flexibility today.
What is specificity?
Previous to the mid 1980’s, the only people who did strength training, or lifted weights, were body builders, and the thought of any other athlete lifting weights was ridiculous.
There were a few exceptions, but for the most part the accepted method of training at the time was: Specificity! In other words; if you were a runner, you ran. The thought of lifting weights or performing other non-running activities was just plain crazy.
Conflict and confusion
As athletes and coaches started to experiment with different types of strength training a vicious debate developed about the proposed benefits of such an activity. One month there would be articles praising the benefits of this new revolutionary training method, explaining how athletes would now be able to run faster, jump higher and do away with sports injury.
Then the next month another article would come out exposing strength training as a waste of time; an activity that did more harm than good, and would only serve to slow athletes down and cause more injuries, not less.
Does this sound familiar? Are you hearing similar comments regarding stretching and flexibility training? So what happened with strength training?
Where did all the controversy go?
Over time, coaches, athletes and researchers discovered how to use strength training for the greatest benefit to the athlete. They discovered what worked and what didn’t and kept modifying their training until they came up with guidelines for “Proper Strength Training.”
So what do I make of the current scientific research on stretching and flexibility training?
I’m often asked: “Is there any scientific evidence that proves stretching will make me a better athlete?” And if I’m honest, I have to reply by saying; No, there isn’t.
But before you give up stretching altogether, let me propose another question: Is there any scientific evidence that proves push-ups, or lunges, or bicep curls will make you a better athlete?
While the answer to this question is also a no, it doesn’t mean these exercises aren’t beneficial, or don’t have a place in the athletes training program. And the same applies to stretching and flexibility training.
That’s not how you use stretching
While doing a few hamstring stretches before running onto the field will not make you a better athlete, the same can be said for push-ups, or bicep curls, or any other strength exercise. But stretching, just like push-ups, was never meant to be used in this way, and this is where the scientific studies fall short.
In an attempt to measure the benefits of stretching, researchers have tried to use stretching in the same way as the examples above. They have tried to measure the effects of doing a few stretches before playing sport, and when the results of their research suggest that no benefit was gained, they make the wrong assumption that stretching is not beneficial.
So how should you use stretching?
If doing a few simple stretches before you play your sport isn’t going to help; how do you use flexibility training in a way that will improve your athletic performance?
The short answer: In exactly the same way as you would use a strength training program.
When designing a strength training program, the trainer first assesses the athlete for weaknesses, imbalances and areas of their sport that need improvement. The trainer then designs a program that works to improve these areas, and over the long term, these strength improvements will hopefully translate into improved performance and a reduction in injury.
When designing a flexibility training program, the same approach is taken. The player is first assessed for weaknesses, imbalances and areas of their sport where flexibility is important and needs to be improved. The trainer then designs a program that aims to improve these areas, and the program is applied over the long term. As the player’s flexibility improves, so should their performance.
Stretching is not a quick fix
Remember, stretching is not a quick fix. The benefits of proper stretching are only attained when flexibility training is applied professionally and diligently over an extended period of time.
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About the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.