By: Mark St. Peter
If you read health and fitness magazines and blogs, you know that there is a lot of debate about the value of flexibility training, always has been. Stretching is deemed by some a “waste of time”, or at best, given only token respect with a simple 10 to 20 second hold of basic position. Meanwhile one advisor expounds on the virtue of stretching isolated muscle groups and someone else claims that flexibility programs must be synergistic and flowing. One yogi values power and strength, the other grace, suppleness and a quiescence of mind; a third considers structural balance to be of paramount importance. Quite regularly someone announces that they have originated “new, groundbreaking methods”, panaceas for flexibility. And all too often, the health professionals of one school dismiss advocates of opposing methods with ill-disguised contempt.
How Come the “Experts” Can’t Agree?
The major conflict arises because most opinions and subsequent recommendations on this topic are from given “expert’s” experience in a single field (for example, physiology, kinesiology, physical therapy, yoga, martial or athletics). Whether studied scientifically or learned through experience, most have only sampled a fraction of potential methods available. They truthfully and completely report what they see and understand without recognizing their ignorance (ignorance = a state of being unaware or unconscious of what you do not know). As a result they paint an incomplete picture to the public, thus sowing the seeds of conflict and misunderstanding.
This writing is an effort to provide some insight to the many valuable applications of flexibility training. A quality flexibility program will not only improve your performance and contribute to easing chronic discomfort and pain, but promote your general comfort and relaxation as well.
How Am I Different from Other “Experts”?
I write as a health professional with a holistic perspective. I have a rich and diverse background that has provided both intellectual and experiential knowledge bearing directly on this topic. I began with a very respectable personal athletic flexibility present from youth, cultivated later and maintained today. As the consequence of a high-speed pedestrian-auto collision, where I was the pedestrian; and the ensuing three years of formal physical therapy I gained an intimate knowledge of therapeutic techniques for flexibility. My concerns as a physical educator stimulated further study and provided insight into yoga, meditation, and martial arts traditions of physical control and awareness. Formal studies in physiology, kinesiology, and human movement provide the scientific background to understand the technical aspects of the discipline.
This personal grounding has been enriched by years of professional experience working with diverse populations ranging from National Champion athletes, professional baseball talent and nationally ranked inline skaters to stroke victims, MS patients, back pain populations, and the many who are just plain stiff. I can say without exaggeration that I have had exceptional success with these varied clients. I attribute this success to my practice of applying multiple techniques, varied according to individual needs, and working within extended time frames.
Some Examples of Limited “Expert” Perspective:
1. A scientist who makes authoritative claims that stretching has no effect on physical performance. You will often find these claims to be based on findings of the short-term study involving a token flexibility routine. Such conclusions are based on the fact that this routine did not create measurable biochemical changes in muscles or have an acute effect on a measure of immediate performance.
Shortcomings of such studies are that the flexibility routines are very limited using only a few simple stretches held for short duration (usually less than 30 seconds). A study, as a matter of necessity, is by default isolating a few variables and disregarding or eliminating others. These results are often too broadly interpreted, by either the researchers themselves or the reporters who review them, into headlines universally announcing that stretching has no value of at all. In this example, a disservice is done to those who may benefit from the corrective and restorative value of a high-quality, long-term flexibility program.
2. A common piece of misinformation is the declaration that no one should ever stretch without first warming up. You will find this belief held by those who advocate long duration stretches (two minutes or longer) because they have generated substantial long-term flexibility gains using extensive warm-up procedures.
Certainly there is more benefit to be gained from a stretch when the muscle is warm. However this “never stretch unless warm theory” would deny the busy office worker with back pain the relief he could obtain by taking a few ten-minute stretching breaks during the day that require no warm-up.
3. Those who assert that flexibility training is of little or no use in pain relief. The lack of understanding here, once again, is that he or she is familiar only with general large-muscle movements held for short periods of time. Often flexibility strategies are confined to the muscle groups known as prime movers, these constitute only the outermost of three to four layers of muscle.
My experience has taught me that this approach is shortsighted and simply wrong. Well designed, conscientious, flexibility programs that address deeper stabilizing musculature are invaluable for providing relief for chronic musculo-skeletal pain of all types when properly taught and adhered to.
And the debate roils; which type of stretching is “the best”? Is it best to stretch before, during, or after a workout?… How often?, How long?, and How intense? These are common questions I address in a different article (link to “how To Stretch). The advice of most authors is correct for certain circumstances, however they often overlook or discount other valid methods that serve other circumstances. The popular press sensationalizes and presents conflicting information to sell subscriptions, scientists debate and athletes argue, while yogis (yoga itself has many subcategories) and martial artists through the millennia have developed regimes and methods that not only improve mobility but lead to physical and spiritual awareness as well.
I firmly believe that there is no “one right method”. The one you choose should depend on the goals you are trying to accomplish. My years of experience have demonstrated that they will yield sure-fire results if you follow them diligently over time. If you’re interested, go on to read other articles and videos I have created on my approach to stretching. Follow the basic rules presented in this article (link) for when, how and why and you will open the door to a world familiar only to a dedicated few.