Ask ten healthcare professionals about the benefit of stretching and you’ll get at least twelve different opinions. Earlier this summer I attended the American College of Sports Medicine conference in San Francisco where I heard a couple of my colleagues, Ian Shrier, MD, PhD (McGill University) and Malachy McHugh, PhD (National Institute Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma ), debate the virtues of stretching based on all the studies to date. And while the great stretching debate rages on, they brought up a good, often misunderstood point worth emphasizing: dynamic stretching isn’t really stretching.
Dynamic “stretching” is the act of moving a muscle through its range of motion, often in a manner that mimics the action or sport one is about to perform. A golfer lightly swinging his club back and forth or a soccer player swinging his leg to and fro before taking the field are typical examples. These manuevers certainly get your blood flowing to those muscles (and ligaments and joints), and even help prime your nervous system before it has to perform “for real.” So they can be a worthwhile part of warming up. But they are not stretches.
By definition, stretching involves an actual increase in length. And despite the persistent disagreements about exactly how long one needs to hold a stretch, one thing’s certain: it needs to be sustained for some period of time (typically 30 seconds) to achieve any significant lengthening. Not only are dynamic stretches not sustained, they rarely involve a stretch. They simply entail muscles moving within their already-existing ranges of motion–the muscles aren’t usually pushed to full length, much less increased length. Furthermore, the muscles have to contract (i.e. shorten) to help generate that motion.
So while air swings and air kicks might be useful for warming up and feeling looser, they should not be mistaken or substituted for stretching. (So much for that shortcut to flexibility!) Sorry to rain on the parade, but always best to know what you’re really getting…and what you’re not!
Now, as for the latest and greatest information on true stretching, stay tuned….