Having good flexibility has long been an important component of an overall sound fitness program. For some, this has been a more difficult task to achieve than others who naturally have good flexibility. Traditionally, we’ve been told that stretching prior to and after activity improves flexibility and prevents soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains.

Traditionally, static stretching – holding a stretch for a period of time with no movement – has been the norm for improving flexibility and preventing injury. But is this really the best way to warm-up and does static stretching truly aid in injury prevention?

We will attempt to look at flexibility in a different light and explore some alternative forms of stretching that may break the bonds of traditionalism.

Ballistic stretching emphasizes the “bouncing” of a limb or body part in an attempt to move it beyond its normal range of motion. This type of stretching can lead to muscle injury and doesn’t allow the muscle to adjust and relax in a stretched position. Therefore it is not useful and not recommended.

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation – PNF – stretching involves passively stretching a muscle, followed by a contraction of that muscle and then passively stretching it again through an increased range of motion. This type of stretching requires the use of a trained individual to perform the “passive” and resistive parts of the stretch. Static stretching, the most common type that you will see, involves stretching a muscle or group of muscles to their furthest point and maintaining or holding that position for a period of time. In order to be effective, the stretch needs to be held for at least 30 seconds to one minute.

A more effective type of stretching prior to any athletic activity may be dynamic stretching. This may be new to a lot of people, but track and field coaches and athletes have been utilizing this type of stretching for years now.

Dynamic stretching consists of controlled, rhythmic exercises that gently take you through the limits of your range of motion. An example of this is walking lunges to stretch out your quadricep and hip flexor muscles.

It is safer than the ballistic stretching as it does not go beyond the normal limits of your joint range of motion. Dynamic flexibility focuses on the extremities as well as the core region and should be done in sets of 8-12 repetitions or over a length of approximately 10 yards. You do not want to overdo it since tired muscles have less elasticity, thus you will be taking the joint through a smaller range of motion. The intensity of exercises increases, thus allowing the body to be fully prepared for the ensuing activity.

So why should one stretch dynamically as opposed to the previously mentioned techniques prior to activity? There are several good reasons. Continuous stretching mimics the speed and movement patterns of athletic skills. It increases muscle extensibility and temperature, which has been proven in research studies to reduce soft tissue injury. It also offers a conditioning component not found in static stretching, helping to reduce boredom during warm-up as well as introduce the “core” to prepare it for intense activity. Several of these techniques also emphasize balance, which will aid in warming up the neurological system, which is just as important to consider in the warm-up.

Research is quite limited regarding dynamic stretching. What limited research has been done, however, is significantly positive. One study looked at the effects of different forms of stretching and their effect on vertical leap. The results showed that performing dynamic stretching and a light running warm-up versus static stretching and light running had a more positive effect on vertical leap scores.

Even closer to home, the UR men’s basketball team instituted dynamic stretching into their warm-up routine starting in the 2001-02 season, and as a result saw the soft tissue injuries – muscle strains and ligament sprains – decrease a whopping 85 percent the next year. That’s pretty convincing evidence for me.

So what we do know is that dynamic stretching has a positive effect on strength and power activities as well as injury prevention. So why aren’t more individuals and teams using this form of stretching?

Well, it is still a relatively new concept, and as with anything new, individuals may be resistant to alter their routine or may need more proof that it actually works. But this is about to change with ongoing supportive research, instruction in physical education at all levels, and teams such as the Rochester Rhinos employing dynamic stretching as an integral part of their warm-up.

Some traditions are worth changing.

Steckley is a certified UR athletic trainer and can be reached at psteckley@campustimes.org.

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