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To stretch or not to stretch … that is the question…

Unfortunately we are not too sure about the answer at this point it seems.  To date research on the benefits of stretching contains limitations, and evidence to say the least is conflicting.  In fact the results of the majority of research speaks for the inadequacies of the studies rather than the conclusiveness of the findings.

So what do we know about stretching?

Can stretching improve flexibility?
Of course.  Stretching can improve flexibility and will also prevent the continued loss of flexibility.  A long term flexibility programme will obviously result in more compelling changes in flexibility and it is recommended that if you are concerned about achieving increases in your range of motion you undertake an ongoing stretching  programme as part of your training.

It has also been documented in research that stretching just prior to an event may make short term improvements in flexibility.  But does this help with performance?

So can stretching improve performance?
There have been studies detailing improvements in performance due to ongoing static stretching programmes.  One study has proven that a 10 week static stretching programme resulted in improved performance in speed, strength, power and muscle endurance tests.  Another study documented an increase in vertical jump performance due to pre activity stretching that increased the temperature of the vastus lateralis muscle.  However, this study did not on the other hand test other warm up methods and the effect on performance which renders the findings as inconclusive. 

Before embarking in serious exercise there is benefit achieved by taking the joints through at least the range of movement requirement by the activity.  This will ‘wake up’ the neural system, apparently.

However, before undertaking ballistic activity we do not wish to relax the body.  We want to activate the muscles.  This is why nowadays gentle dynamic stretching is generally recommended rather than a static stretch pre workout.  In fact static stretching is not recommended at all when muscles are cold.  This dynamic stretching may include relaxed swings of the limbs, gradually increasing the amplitude of the movements. We are in fact increasing muscle tone and increasing the available range of movement by these techniques.

Ok then does stretching reduce the chance of getting an injury?
A study by Shrier and Gossal claims that stretching prior to a workout does not prevent overuse or acute injuries.  They do claim however that continuous stretching over a period of time may promote muscle growth which could in turn reduce the risk or injury.
  Translation - We are not too sure on this one either.

How long should I stretch for?
It is generally accepted that a stretch should be held for 15-30 seconds.  There is little evidence to suggest that holding a stretch for longer period will aid enhanced flexibility although some research suggests that post training a longer stretch may assist in alleviating muscle tension in specific areas. 

What about after exercise then.
It is still widely accepted that stretching post workout is beneficial in terms of relaxing the muscle tonus, and assisting in recovery and repair.  Spending
15 minutes at the end of the workout stretching all the muscles that you have used can loosen tightened muscles and connective tissues. It has the added benefit of calming the neural system and decreasing muscle tone, which is the mechanism of relaxation.

There is limited evidence to suggest that stretching may wake the body, it can calm it, and it can ease one's aches and pains. It is a matter of deciding the purpose of the stretching and choosing the type of stretching that is most appropriate whether static, dynamic, PNF or a related style of stretching.  It may or may not assist in sporting performance or reducing injury, but one thing is for sure if you wish to enjoy your later years of life and remain supple maintaining your flexibility will go a long way towards achieving that.


How many reps should I do?

You are standing with the squat bar on your shoulders loaded up to the hilt...  training is about to hit full steam ahead?  But how many reps should I do?  I want to get stronger but certainly don't want to put on too much bulk?

Have a look at the table below for a guide on the number of repetitions that should be completed to achieve a range of fitness goals.  However, remember the number of repetitions does not solely determine your response to training.  Rest, intensity, genetics and other factors also will play a part in determining your exercise response.

Goal Sets Reps Intensity Rest
Muscle Endurance 3 15-25 50-65% 1RM 30-60 secs
Health / Fitness 1-3 10-15 60-80% 1RM 30-60 secs
Muscle Strength 3-6 5-6 80-90% 1RM 3-5 mins
Muscle Size / Hypertrophy 3-6 8-12 80-85% 1RM 30-60 secs
Muscular Power 3-6 2-4 80-90% 1RM 3-4 mins

Note: 1RM = 1 repetition maximum.  The amount of weight that you can lift once only on an exercise.