Vail Daily column: To stretch or not to stretch?
Make It Count
Flexibility training and the purported benefits it has on joint health are commonly misunderstood within circles of fitness enthusiasts. Some experts claim that stretching is an absolute necessity for joint health, while others think that stretching is a giant waste of time. In fact, it’s somewhere in between. My goal is to elaborate on the Vail Daily article published a few weeks ago, “Stretching, flexibility key for joint health.”
In the article, Kirsten Stuart of Dogma Athletica suggested that people need to put more emphasis on stretching. In summary, she asserted that as we get older, we lose our flexibility, and this can lead to aches and pains.
Stuart said, “For many in the Vail Valley, we spend a lot of time using our lateral plane, in that we lean forward at work, then bike, hike or run, resulting in our glutes becoming weaker and our hip flexors becoming tighter. To counteract this, we need to focus on opening up the chest, doing extension exercises and postural lateral stretching.”
However, later in the article, Luke O’Brien, physical therapist and vice president of physical therapy operations at Howard Head Sports Medicine, said, “People that are really flexible that undergo high impact activity, they are more likely to sustain a joint injury because … all the muscles, tendons and ligaments are all stretched out, so the force is less likely to be absorbed by those tissues.”
WHO NEEDS WHAT?
Well, which is it? The answer is that it depends. In fact, both Stuart and O’Brien are absolutely correct in their estimations. The article is misleading because it doesn’t make a clear distinction on who needs what and why.
For example, O’Brien also stated that “while stretching is one component to flexibility, having strong muscles could do more to protect your joints and decrease injury.” Again, he is right, but who needs to strengthen, who needs to stretch, and who needs both?
DEION SANDERS’ FLEXIBILITY
Here’s a great example that exemplifies the fuzziness of flexibility training. During the 1989 NFL combine, Deion Sanders ran a lightning fast 4.2 second 40-yard dash just before being drafted to the Atlanta Falcons. When strength coach Rafael Ruiz realized that Deion couldn’t even touch his toes, Ruiz introduced an intensive stretching program, contending this would improve Sander’s stride length, thereby increasing overall speed. According to fellow NFL great John Welbourne, the result slowed Sanders down to a 4.35 second 40 yard dash.
Sometimes a good thing can be overdone to the point of diminishing returns or derail us from our goals. However, the real point is this: We need adequate range of motion about a joint to accomplish the necessary tasks the joint was designed to perform. We don’t need any more or less.
I train many students who can easily touch their toes without bending their knees. Do they need to stretch their hamstrings? No. They don’t ever need to stretch their hamstrings because they already have enough range of motion at their hip to allow for proper bending. People who have adequate range of motion are wasting their time stretching.
RUBBER BAND ANALOGY
What if they increase their range of motion beyond adequate? At some point, hypermobility can become an issue. It’s a pathology by the way. Overly flexible people often (but not always) have very unstable joints that lead to injury as O’Brien alluded to in the article. Think about it for a minute; I will use an analogy of a rubber band compared to a muscle. Do you want an old, stretched out rubber band holding your knee in place? Or do you want a new, tight rubber band keeping your knee in alignment? I will take the latter, thank you.
RANGE OF MOTION IS KEY
We must not stretch just for the sake of it. On the other hand, some trainees are so stiff they can’t access the range of motion needed to accomplish proper movement mechanics. This can reinforce asymmetries and compensation patterns leading to potential injury. Stretching could be beneficial for these individuals if their lack of mobility is negatively impacting their health or life. Stuart is suggesting this, correctly so.
I felt compelled to clear this up because I have some students confused because I don’t have them stretch, and Stuart was suggesting that people need to stretch.
Other students of mine inquired because I do have them stretch, and O’Brien stated that people who are really flexible could be more prone to injury. Again, these professionals are both very much correct in my view, but it bears repeating: It all depends.
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at http://www.r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.