The debate over static stretching among fitness professionals seems to have no end. While some may argue that stretching improves functional mobility, and therefore improve the results of a fitness regimen, research has found no evidence that static stretching is, in fact, beneficial (Grossman, Sahrmann, & Rose, 1982; Clark, 2001, Cook, 2010). Despite this lack of evidence, many personal trainers continue to start their clients’ sessions with a pre-workout stretch.
No matter what you as a personal trainer think about the efficacy and safety of static stretching, there are times when static stretching – defined as taking a muscle to the point of tension and holding it for 20 seconds (Clark, 2000) – is unequivocally contraindicated and sometimes even dangerous for your clients. Below are three situations where static stretching is out of the question for any trainer.
Do not apply static stretching techniques…
…when relative flexibility is present.
If you’re trying to stretch a muscle, be sure you’re actually stretching that specific muscle. Sounds simple, but it’s relatively easy to inadvertently mobilize the wrong muscle as an unfortunate result of relative flexibility.
“Relative flexibility” occurs when the body seeks the path of least resistance during functional movement patterns. For example, when you work with a client to stretch the hamstring complex, problems such as stiffness, adhesions, and poor motor control can prevent the hamstrings from fully extending. When this happens, as soon as the body meets resistance from the hamstring complex, the lumbar spine automatically flexes (which is the path of least resistance) in order to complete the movement. The client may be able to touch his or her toes, but now has increased mobility in an area that does not need to be mobile (the lumbar spine) and has failed to improve the mobility of the intended target (the hip through the origination of the hamstring complex). Because the hip requires far more mobility than the lumbar spine in this situation, functional flexibility has not improved, while the limited range of hip motion coupled with the increased lumbar spine motion may have created an imbalance in the individual’s power and strength development. Furthermore, because of its limited capacity for mobility, excessive motion at the lumbar spine can also create pain and/or susceptibility to injury (Neumann, 2002; Sahrmann, 2002).
To avoid this situation, it is crucial to explain to your clients that they must stop the stretch at the 1st point of tension before the compensation occurs. In the example noted above, cue your client to stop at the 1st sign of hamstring tension. Quite often what occurs is the client goes to the first point of hamstring tension, then he/she feels this isn’t going far enough and decides to go further. At this point, the hamstring can no longer extend, so the body seeks the path of least resistance, and relative flexibility is now present.
In this case, static stretching is not the culprit – the fact that it’s performed incorrectly is. A great alternative stretch to try instead is the Hamstring – Seated on Stability Ball stretch in the PTontheNet exercise library. Be sure to cue your clients to keep the foot/ankle in the saggital plane and to maintain hip flexion and scapular retraction at the end of the stretch, as these are typically the most common areas of compensation. If performed correctly, this stretch makes lumbar flexion almost impossible.
…when altered length-tension relationships are present.
Sedentary lifestyles and/or improper training techniques can cause postural distortion patterns to emerge. These patterns create several non-desirable characteristics among joints, including altered length-tension relationships. Typically, tissues on one side of the joint become lengthened as a result of shortening on the opposite side. In these instances, the tension within the tissue is due to its already excessive and chronically stretched position. The constant attempts of the muscle to return the joints to a normal position result in tissue hyperactivity and hypersensitivity. This feeling of tension typically causes the exerciser to feel the need to stretch the muscle to “loosen it up” or “make it feel better.”
Ironically, stretching tissue that is already sensitive due to excessive length simply aggravates the situation. It’s akin to taking exercise tubing that is already maximally extended and trying to lengthen it more – only further tension is created. And although exercise tubing and muscle tissue will rarely completely break, human tissue – unlike tubing – contains neural tissue that will send pain messages to our client, which we’re obviously trying to avoid.
Not only will this create long-term tension and discomfort for the client, the client’s motor control will be altered because the body will always seek movement that avoids pain and discomfort. We want to avoid altered motor control due to the presence of pain at all costs; the resulting changes in movement patterns simply create dysfunction in other joints, most commonly in the joints immediately above and or below the joint that is being affected by the new altered movement pattern (Clark, 2000; Marshall & Guskiewicz, 2003). For some clients, stretching may feel good temporarily, but can eventually create problems and lengthen the healing process.
The best way to approach this situation is to address the antagonistic aspects of the musculature. For example, if you have a client with a long commute to a sedentary job, who then goes to the gym to take spin class and “do some abs,” you’re going to have a client with excessive spinal flexion. This can create a myriad of problems, one of which will be tension somewhere along the spine. This is the client who wants you to suggest a “stretch for my back.” In this case, a static stretch will only aggravate the tissue further. A good idea for this client would be to mobilize the anterior aspect of the torso and spine. There are a few ways to do this, but the Prisoner Stiff-Legged Deadlift, demonstrated in the video below, is great way to address many of the residual problems associated with chronic flexion of the spine:
…when synergistic dominance is present
Sometimes there is already a dysfunctional movement pattern in place that is causing the tension that precipitates the desire to stretch. Quite commonly the tension is caused by synergistic dominance. “Synergistic dominance” occurs when the prime mover of a joint is not functioning optimally and the local synergists contribute to the movement more than they should in an attempt to move the joint through its full range of motion. For example, this occurs quite commonly at the hip, where a glute maximus with weakness or poor motor control can cause the hamstring complex to be recruited as a synergist.
In this instance, any attempts to improve the flexibility of the hamstring through static stretching – or any other modality, for that matter – are pretty much pointless until the cause of the tension is addressed. In this case, this dysfunction lies in the glute complex and the weakness and/or dysfunction therein. Until function is improved in the glutes’ ability to extend the hip, the hamstrings will always be a reluctant synergist – and tension, hyperactivity, and tightness will always be present.
The best way to address this is to strengthen and mobilize the hip and glute complex. Although this is a simple concept, there are many factors at play here and an entire fitness program could be written to address this singular issue. However, a great simple way to get your client started is to get him/her to master the Bridge on Stability Ball. This is a great way to innervate the glutes with little intervention from the hamstrings and therefore is great to include in a warm-up for clients with this issue.
Increased mobility through appropriate levels of tissue length and motor control is crucial to our fitness performance and health. However, the common belief that static stretching gets us there through prevention of injuries is fatally flawed. If static stretching is used to alleviate the issues brought on by synergistic dominance, altered length-tension relationships, and relative flexibility, then it is at best a waste of time and at worst dangerous. Understanding these concepts will help fitness professionals address and fix the causes of the movement problems, not the symptoms.
- Clark, M.A. (2000). Integrated Flexibility Training. National Academy of Sports Medicine.
- Clark, M.A. (2001). Performance Enhancement Specialist Manual. National Academy of Sports Medicine.
- Conn, J.M., et al. (2003). Sports and Recreation Related Injury Episodes in the U.S. Population. Injury Prevention, 9: 117-123.
- Cook, G. (2010). Movement: Functional Movement Systems – Screening, Assessment and Corrective Strategies. Aptos, CA: On Target Publications.
- Grossman, M.R., Sahrmann, S.A., & Rose, S.J. (1982). Review of Length Associated Changes in Muscle: Experimental Evidence and Clinical Implications. Physical Therapy, 62: 1799-1808.
- Marshall, S.W., & Guskiewicz. (2003). Sports and recreational injury: the hidden cost of a healthy lifestyle. Injury Prevention, 9: 100-102.
- Neumann, D.A. (2002). Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby.
- O'Sullivan, K., Murray, E., & Sainsbury, D. (2009). The effect of warm-up, static stretching and dynamic stretching on hamstring flexibility in previously injured subjects. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 10:37.
- Sahrmann, S.A. (2002). Diagnosis and Treatment of Movement Impairment Syndromes. Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby.
- Clark, M.A. (2000). Integrated Neuromuscular Stabilization Training (Power). National Academy of Sports Medicine.
- Small, K., McNaughton, L., & Matthews, M. (2008): A Systematic Review into the Efficacy of Static Stretching as Part of a Warm-Up for the Prevention of Exercise-Related Injury. Research in Sports Medicine: An International Journal, 16(3): 213-231.
- McHugh, M.P., & Cosgrave, C.H. (2010). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20: 169–181.
- Shepard, R.J. (2003). Can we afford to exercise given current injury rates? Injury Prevention, 9: 99-100.