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New Ideas on Proper Stretching Techniques

Some stretching routines may hinder, not help, your athletic performance.
By Julie Bain
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's a cool, clear Saturday morning and you decide to go out for a little run. You tie on your running shoes, head outside, and do your usual two-minute stretching routine. You prop a foot up and bend forward to stretch your hamstring, then you straighten up for a calf stretch. You jump up and down a couple of times to get your blood moving, then off you go!

Wrong, wrong, wrong, says Bill Holcomb, PhD, professor of athletic training at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has studied the effects of stretching for many years. Turns out a spate of new research reveals that much of what we've long believed to be beneficial about proper stretching techniques may have the opposite effect.

"First of all," Holcomb says, "you should never stretch a cold muscle in any way. And doing static stretches -- meaning the kind where you hold the stretch before a workout or competition -- may decrease your strength, power, and performance."

Holcomb says previous studies had shown this effect, too, but had only looked at muscle stretching for eight to 30 minutes -- far longer than any weekend warrior would normally do. His team's recent study, which appeared in the September 2008 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, had participants do hamstring and quadriceps stretches for 90 seconds each, a more reality-based approach.

Surprise: the static stretches still significantly reduced the participants' power. The ballistic stretches (the kind we were warned not to do in gym class as kids, where you bounce during the stretch) also caused a decrease in power, but slightly less so than the static stretches.

This news may be more important for competitive athletes than for amateur fitness buffs, and some other research even disputes it. While more studies are needed, Holcomb says, some consensus is emerging on proper stretching techniques.

7 Things You Need to Know about Proper Stretching Techniques

Always warm up first."To improve range of motion and avoid injury, you do need to stretch, but don't ever do it when muscles are cold," warns orthopaedic surgeon William Levine, MD, director of sports medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. "Always start with some mild aerobic warm-ups to get blood to the tissue before doing any stretching."

Holcomb recommends brisk walking or slow jogging for about five minutes, rather than stretching before exercise. "Warming up increases blood flow, which increases the temperature in the muscle, which makes the collagen fibers more elastic like a rubber band," he explains.

After warming up, do dynamic (not static) stretches. Dynamic stretching means slow, controlled movements rather than remaining still and holding a stretch. They may include simple movements like arm circles and hip rotations, flowing movements as in yoga, or walking or jogging exercises like those mentioned below. While studies have not clearly proven this, increasing numbers of experts agree that dynamic stretching is the best stretching routine before a workout or competition. Levine warns, however, that proper technique is key. "Poor technique that is not anatomically correct puts you at higher risk for injury."

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