It’s surprising how boring stretching can be. Whether it’s the old school wide stance alternate toe-touches that you can see people doing in every gully or ground before a cricket match, or reaching up with the fingers laced together, every stretch becomes mundane after just a few moments. It’s also more difficult than it seems. And yet, it is the one part of exercising that everyone insists on. Getting ready for a workout? Stretch. Done with a workout? Stretch. Sore midway through a workout? Stretch. Injured? Stretch.
However, the science behind stretching is anything but simple. It is the one area of sports science that has seen a huge shift over time, mostly on the question of how and when one should stretch.
Back in school, before a football match, I remember being put through a warm-up consisting of static stretches, the ones where you hold a position for 30 seconds. 15 years later, if I were to do static stretches before a workout, it will be frowned upon. Renowned strength and conditioning coach Michael Boyle writes about this change in attitude in his frequently-referenced piece The Static Stretching Renaissance on strenthcoach.com: “static stretching has gone from the best way to warm-up to something that no one should ever do again.” Boyle has coached elite athletes and teams like the Boston Red Sox and the American women’s Olympic football and ice hockey teams, and his opinion is that the fitness world has unfairly turned against static stretching in favour of dynamic stretches.
Researchers are fairly divided on which kind of stretch is better, and this makes it harder to pick any one routine. But this, in a way, can be a good thing, because the truth is that both static and dynamic stretches are important. Both can, in fact, be done before and after workouts depending on how you pair them with other drills. The trick is to find the right balance between the two, and more importantly, knowing how they affect the body.
A simple way to put it would be that dynamic stretches help your muscles get ready for activity. These are stretches where you are focusing on waking up your muscles and increasing blood flow to avoid acute injuries. In fitness jargon, they tend to increase your range of motion, or ROM. They also tend to boost the ability of muscles to produce force. One of the muscles that tends to respond really well to dynamic stretching before physical activity is the hamstring. A paper in the Journal Of Sports Science And Medicine on the sustained effects of dynamic stretching on ROM and stiffness of hamstrings found that “dynamic stretching caused a sustained reduction in passive stiffness of the hamstrings and increase in knee ROM… our results suggest that dynamic stretching of the hamstrings before exercise may help to prevent injuries.”
The easiest dynamic stretch for the hamstring is the leg swing aka the high kick with toe-touch. But these are not the only ones. Add some torso twists and yoga flows as well to your full body routine. HASFit’s 12-minute pre-workout warm-up has some fun stretches to get you ready for a good session.
This doesn’t mean you avoid static stretching altogether. Despite the step-motherly treatment afforded to static stretches, and despite a findings published in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research which says that it can impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours, it is smart to remember that casual fitness enthusiasts are more concerned with flexibility and injury prevention rather than speed and power.
“If you are seeking a greater range of motion for your performance in something like practicing your overhead reach in swimming, while static stretching may impair your speed, your movement will benefit greatly in the long term. Especially when combined with aerobic activity both before and after the stretch, both performance and range of motion improve,” writes strength and conditioning specialist Karl Riecken in his article The Benefits of Static Stretching Before and After Exercise in trainingpeaks.com.
Riecken’s views match those of Micheal Boyle’s, who in his book New Functional Training For Sports, asks us to break the cycle of dynamic stretch-workout-static stretch. He says that adding a static stretching routine before a dynamic stretching routine works better before a workout. In the end, it’s also about figuring out what works best for you.
There are some tips for stretching you may want to apply though, before you get into a routine:
-Stretching should never be painful, but slightly uncomfortable
-Use active stretches, and never be lazy about holding them for 15-30 seconds
-Make sure you target all the overlooked areas like hip flexors, adductors, and hamstrings.
-Remember what Boyle says: “positioning is everything. Most people don't stretch, they just try to look like they are stretching.”
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.