What Does Fit Look Like???

August 17th, 2011

Having had the opportunity to learn from this person first hand, I felt like he would be the perfect educator to shed some insight for the next “Ask the Expert” blog post.  If you ask 10 different people what their definition of being “fit” means, you’d probably end up with 10 different answers.  Luckily for us, we get the answer from one of the leading educators in the health and fitness industry (yes, that’s him in the photos below).


With over 20 years in the health and wellness industry, Peter Chiasson is one of the most educated and experienced health professionals in Canada. A Master Certified MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) Specialist, a Masters designation with the Resistance Training Specialist program and a Rehabilitation Specialist, as well an Instructor for both the MAT and RTS programs. Peter is also a nationally ranked competitive bodybuilder and over many years has made it his personal goal to be at the leading edge of health and fitness education.  In 2003, Peter established Core Strength Inc. where he works with professional athletes, medical professionals from many fields, fitness experts, fitness beginners, seniors, as well as people with numerous traumatic conditions and injuries. Located in Toronto, Core Strength Inc. is the most comprehensive biomechanics based rehabilitation treatment and exercise mechanics training facility in the country.

As a fitness professional and competitive athlete I am frequently confronted with the question, “ can you give me one tip that will help me get (look) more fit?” I have great difficulty not peeling my skin off my own head and restraining the columns of fire that seek to burst from my eye sockets in response, knowing that anything I say at that point in time will probably fall on deaf ears. Not to mention the one thing I tell them is meaningless without context or the other 150 tips that are required to accompany the first one.  It all boils down to the fact that there are two very serious issues the fitness industry has with its perception of fitness;

1) Fitness doesn’t have one particular “look” and in fact most of the people who have that super lean and muscular appearance we are used to seeing on magazine covers and on the competitive stage are far from healthy which most seem to think is synonymous with fit… it’s not.

2) The very notion that if it were as easy as doing one or two things and keeping the rest of your chocolate cake eating, binge weekend drinking, taking your car everywhere you can, lifestyles just the way they’ve always been… is simply ridiculous.

Most people who ask for “that one tip” are simply not prepared to make a serious life change, and dare I say are likely doing it for the wrong reasons anyway! (If you think the previous statement is implying that people wanting to get in shape purely for looking good is wrong in this writers opinion… you are correct).  I have heard that one of the many driving forces for people engaging in fitness programs and boot camps throughout North America has to do with the anthropological concept that adheres to the need to be more attractive to the prospective mates around us, so let’s take this concept alone and examine it’s validity.

Somewhere in the last 30-40 years guerrilla-style marketing has become such a powerful force in the North American existence with countless magazine covers and television commercials of hard bodies selling anything and everything. It has overridden our base instincts as to what we find attractive in a mate, which first and foremost had mostly to do with the ability to procreate for the female of the species, and hunt and protect the brood for the male counterpart.

Example; females with adequate levels of body fat and hips that clearly and visibly facilitate childbirth were prime candidates for selection of a mate. I wonder how the women of today especially the elite of the fitness world would measure up in that scenario?  Super-low levels of body fat making hormone levels dip to the point where often the menstrual cycle ceases altogether, and tiny waists and hips would present extremely poorly in the hopes of childbearing, which would send the male counterpart searching in the other direction.  The male of the species with the ultra lean muscular physique would have incredibly unstable insulin and blood sugar levels with virtually no body fat storage thus unable to protect the brood in the cold climates/seasons and hunt for days at a time without feeding himself. An extremely inefficient existence putting the perpetuation of the species at great risk if one looks at it using the anthropological basis and context.

I think here is where we have to ask ourselves, “What do we really want out of being fit?”.  The popular lean muscular look that seems synonymous with North Americas’ idea of fit, may not be exactly congruent with health and longevity like we think it is. I wonder how widely circulated a magazine article would be if it was titled, “Exercise is found to be leading cause of orthopedic injury and dysfunction.” Or, “ Let’s keep that body fat percentage at higher levels so we can make babies and they can still breast feed!”

Like most articles published nowadays that wouldn’t be the whole story but you get the point. Being fit should be about having more physical tolerance for our activities of daily living (ADL’s), and having a greater ability to handle and perform activities while reducing the risk of injury, period!  It should be about looking forward to playing with your children for as long as possible so we can enjoy our lives with them, making sure that we can take good physical care of ourselves and our loved ones so physical exercise like walks on a beautiful forest trail or a swim at the beach are still things we can do until a very ripe old age.

If all we aspire to is a “look” of fitness, I think we may be missing the point completely. The biggest tragedy I see on a daily basis as a Rehab Specialist is in the quest for fitness with the goal of a “fit looking body” people have forgotten the very basic needs of the human body to have available and maintain the health of their joints.  As a result, through mindless training and compulsive exercise, we as a society are getting knee replacements at 35 years old and hip replacements at 45 years old, and these are people that “look” fit!  The fitness industry needs a serious paradigm shift towards health and wellness and not using these same words to disguise a short road to wearing away our bodies prematurely.

Fitness and health should be one of the most important things to all of us but intelligent and mindful fitness. Getting fit is a process; it’s not a quick fix and cannot be simplified into a “one-tip” mentality either. Fitness is complex, it’s a lifestyle and a way of looking at exercise and our ability to live long and productive lives. I’ll bet a byproduct of that will most likely be healthy looking people… but that will come in good time, not because of some boot camp that we do 2 months before our wedding just to fit into a dress that (hopefully) will only be worn once.

Maybe you can reminisce 15 years later while you are in the hospital recovering from knee surgery looking at the wedding album when you were in such great shape from that awesome trainer that pummeled you for two months but made you do enough squat thrusts to fit you into that little dress.  Bottom line, I have been a competitive physique athlete for 24 years and my four year old loves that daddy has big arms but the funny thing is, when I am 30 pounds heavier in the off season he doesn’t notice at all. What he does notice is when daddy doesn’t hug him right away when he sees him and he always feels how snugly daddy is when he’s being carried into the house half awake. I learned when I had my son, there is no more important reason to have a strong fit body than to care for the ones you love, and to be able to do that for a lifetime without interruption is the greatest gift in the world… to them and yourself.

How Fit is Crossfit? by Christopher ‘Logic’ Chilelli

April 14th, 2011

The exercise profession has an abundance of both advantages and irritations. On the plus side, you can’t ask for a job more worth doing. Fitness pros and coaches like myself can enjoy ample autonomy, daily opportunities for critical thinking, and clear reward for effort in the form of healthy, satisfied clients and students. On the other hand, training in gyms and health clubs can be excruciating. Observing the typical gym workout can range from mildly amusing to something that’s just horrifying, like watching people attempt to perform surgical procedures on themselves after taking in a few episodes of Gray’s Anatomy.

The reality is that no one has really stepped up to provide our communities with comprehensive health and fitness education. Not that anyone even could do such a thing. Despite the practiced façade of medical professionals and fitness ‘experts,’ the truth is that much of the human body, especially optimum health and athletic performance, remains a mystery. Though often presented as unassailable truths, most of our ‘exercise rules’ have little to no empirical substantiation; they are purely the product of traditions and bias. There simply is no single right way to work out – but probably lots of wrong ways.

So in the absence of any real understanding we latch on to trends. We find whatever workout gimmick or product is in vogue at the moment and hammer away at it, expecting miracles. I’ve seen a billion incarnations of this: from Ab-Rollers to Pilates Method, then Boot Camp Fitness, then the Perfect Push-Up, the Ab-Rocket and, in the latest show of jaw-dropping absurdity, the ShakeWeight, which has sold millions of units even though it’s completely and quite obviously retarded. There will never be a shortage of entrepreneurship when it comes to exploiting widespread ignorance.

Exercise professionals are, to my continued chagrin, no better. In fact, most trainers effectively learn about exercise in the same consumerist way and tend to demonstrate, if anything, even more susceptibility to marketing and trends. I can think of no clearer example than exercise education. There are degree programs in exercise science, but with only the smallest exceptions they are next to worthless, producing graduates inured more to exercise mythology than science and with zero practical experience. Unlike massage or physical therapy, there is no state licensure for exercise professionals (not that there should be….whole other issue) so we fill the credibility gap with certificates and correspondence courses. You heard right: correspondence courses – for exercise. Can you imagine taking your car to a mechanic who learned their trade via an online course?

Trends develop in this arena as well. First it was a certification through ACSM you just had to have, then the Ecosgue Method was the thing, then NASM became the standard and if you really wanted to get your stripes you’d do a Paul Chek course, then Gary Gray, then Kettlebell training became the thing, and now, the CrossFit ‘methodology’ has entered the fray, becoming the fastest growing brand in group fitness in the US as of the end of 2010 and, commendably at the very least, not a correspondence course.

I find CrossFit both brilliant and terrifying at the same time. It’s brilliant because of its inclusive community structure and that it has managed to effectively brand something that people have already done for years: circuit training. (I can already hear the howls of protest from any Crossfitters reading this about how CrossFit is its own thing and completely different from circuit training. Yeah, you might want to just stop reading now.) It’s terrifying not because as practiced it invites danger, overtraining, and injury. Most training you see in the average gym does that well enough already so CrossFit isn’t really tipping the scales there. No, it’s terrifying in how effective its marketing is. Without infomercials, a well-designed website, or I daresay even a coherent philosophy, CrossFit has become the hot thing in fitness and featured in probably a third of the conversations I’ve has with colleagues in 2010. It’s positively awe-inspiring.

It’s a terrifyingly savvy business model as well. By crafting a Spartan, no-frills aesthetic, CrossFit invites franchising, as the entry and overhead costs are quite low compared to a more manicured gym. Many CrossFit facilities get built in converted garages and other repurposed sites, often using just flooring, a few Olympic platforms with plates, bars hung from the ceilings for chin-ups, rings, kettlebells, plyo boxes, mats, and word of mouth. Training sessions come in the form of small group classes more often than one-on-one and with 10 participants to a ½ hour class at $25 a pop, way more cash finds its way into instructor and facility owner pockets. Unsurprisingly, franchise or affiliate gyms have cropped up all over and they provide regional testing for instructors that sell out the minute they get announced.

Curious yet? I wanted to use the CrossFit website itself to explain what exactly it entails, but this is what you first encounter on the “What is CrossFit?” section:

“CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.”

That the first paragraph manages to tell you absolutely nothing about CrossFit while plugging itself as a method of choice does not bode well. The rest of the section doesn’t offer up much detail either although it does illuminate some of the guiding principles. “The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind.” CrossFit is “broad, general, and inclusive,” and “we scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.”  Another blog, “CrossFit and Why Everyone Should Be Doing It” begins by telling readers…that certain people shouldn’t be doing it, namely bodybuilders who are after – I love this – “big, non-functional muscles.”  The author does not go on to explain how muscle might be “non-functional” but does echo the sentiments above, emphasizing safety and effectiveness.

What is CrossFit then? Multiple things, really. Mainly – and this is its greatest draw and in my opinion most appealing feature – CrossFit is a community. Crossfitters design and post workouts, usually some variation on a circuit, to the CrossFit website called workouts of the day (WODs). The WODs usually receive clever names like Helen, Heavy Fran, or Fight Gone Bad and can include accompanying video. Other Crossfitters then perform the WODs on their own or in groups and post their time, number of rounds, reps, max weight, or some combination thereof to compliments and encouragement from the rest of the community. A typical CrossFit training center displays a whiteboard with the assigned WOD and each participants name and time, fostering a uniquely competitive gym atmosphere.

I really can’t express my admiration of this aspect of CrossFit enough. For those who’ve drunk the kool-aid, so to speak, CrossFit is a calling. I’ve never encountered people more consistently enthusiastic about fitness. Given the trends that dominate our culture, this fact deserves explicit praise.

This isn’t all. There are numerous special programs and groups. The organization does a lot of its work with police and emergency responders. CrossFit bills itself as The Sport of Fitness, and since 2003 has held regular tournaments in which competitors complete selected workouts for time. These tournaments are national-level events, with winners pocketing substantial cash and prizes and they can serve as major motivators for CrossFitters to get into the gym and train.

I’ll be charitable and describe the workouts as somewhat distinctive. They are unified in that they are always hard, usually stringing together sprints or cardio intervals with several traditional and not-so-traditional strength training exercises done back-to-back for extraordinarily high numbers of repetitions. Helen, for example, consists of three rounds of 400m runs, 21 kettlebell Swings, and 12 pull-Ups. These workouts are ass-kickers and you’ll taste breakfast if you’re not prepared for them.

So what’s my beef? Why the critical tone where so many have lavished praise? Take a look at this video montage of the WOD Fight Gone Bad. Make sure to watch the entire thing. It’s the end I want to comment on.

Did you like that? Did you see how virtually everyone in the video hunched over or collapsing at the end? For CrossFit enthusiasts I’m sure this is exactly the point. Years of misinformation mixed with some bizarre, masochistic cultural obsession have convinced millions of us that a good workout should always leave you nauseous and completely incapacitated. The CrossFit website is full of conceits about providing the, “the hardest training outside of any military organization.” Clearly, this is the go-hard-or-go-home school of fitness.

The reality is far less severe. For one thing, military recruit training is only marginally aimed at improving fitness levels. Its true, rather explicit objective is to create a psychological state in recruits more conducive to the operant conditioning that is boot camp. Soldiers need to consistently obey orders in chaotic environments. Recruit training is about preparing them to do just that and weed out those unable.

For already well-conditioned individuals and athletes exercise that produces this type of result has some utility, providing it’s done to meet some specific objective (Mixed Martial Arts comes quickly to mind) and performed infrequently (think maybe 1-2x per month). Indeed, many of the people that LOVE CrossFit are already alleged exercise professionals. But training like this every time you work out, or, like most Americans, you’re new to vigorous physical activity altogether is just stupid: a shortcut to adrenal shock, subsequent overtraining, and injury.

Adherents bring this same cavalier attitude to the form and execution of exercise. CrossFit is the latest entrant into a long line of exercise philosophies that are big on rules and programs but short on basic anatomy. The typical WOD includes a smattering of movements that either straight disrespect human joints (like dips) or require expert levels of flexibility and control (behind the neck bar presses, deep squatting, depth jumps). Of course, when it comes to form in exercise it doesn’t help matters that the majority in CrossFit training are prescribed at impossibly high rep schemes and then performed with weights that are way too heavy. Even the most seasoned athlete is just massacring form by rep 30.

CrossFit defenders have told me that their instructors are some of the best in the world at teaching complex exercises like a snatch or clean and jerk. The videos and workouts I’ve witness indicate otherwise, but okay. But why do you need to do a snatch or a clean and jerk? If I don’t regularly include either in my workout, am I somehow at a loss? Listen; there is nothing magical about a kettlebell swing or burpee. Exercise isn’t really about the exercise at all, but the adaptation that it stimulates. We usually apply Olympic lifts like the snatch to stimulate changes in power, starting strength, and explosiveness, but there are an infinite number of ways to encourage these qualities. Competent exercise professionals do not simply memorize exercise rules and programs then apply them to people across the board, but instead create exercises and workouts that match the specific needs and abilities of the person performing them. You make the exercise fit the rules of the person, not the other way around.

Getting back to the workout structure, while nominally “broad and inclusive” CrossFit is actually extraordinarily narrow in terms of its energy demands. As I already mentioned, most CrossFit WODs are done as circuits where one exercise begins immediately after the last one gets finished with no rest at all. And the reps schemes, while subject to some variation, average out at 20-30, with doing more in the specified time usually the goal. Lastly, workouts centrally feature exercises usually applied to develop power and explosivity like box jumps and power cleans.

First of all, exercising for high-reps + using heavy weights + fast, jerking movements + fatigue creates an internal environment ripe for overuse injury. Doing CrossFit a few days a week and not injured yet? Don’t worry. Give it time. The comment boards on the website are filled with enthusiastic questions about how much they love this WOD or the other, but “does anyone know how I can get my knees to stop hurting when I squat?”

Second, that circuit format combined with the high reps biases the imposed demand heavily toward muscular endurance and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Yes, despite the distaste for bodybuilding and ‘non-functional muscles,’ most CrossFit training incorportates training that works to build muscle. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s worth noting that this form of training is incredibly calorie demanding. But the demands concentrate in the fast glycolytic energy pathway. For the right population of athletes who need to remain constantly active during competitions and move heavy loads over and over this can provide a powerful stimulus, but outside of that group it’s actually problematic, especially if its all you do.

Maximum strength and power, for example, rely on the phosphagen energy system, large diameter motor neurons, and the IIb fast-twitch muscle fibers they innervate. Volumes of research recognizes that adaptations which improve these components are best realized through high-intensity training – low-rep sets of very heavy loads (2-6RM) with ample rest in between sets to allow for the complete replenishment of ATP-CP in active muscle cells. I’m all for training across energy systems. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, there’s overlap in human metabolism, and still a lot of uncertainty about the contributions of genetics and intention to performance. But performing 30 reps of something is, by definition, low intensity exercise, regardless of the speed of movement. Training this way can actually make someone slower.

Back on planet earth, one often needs to regress is one area in order to progress in another. The higher metabolic demands inherent to hypertrophy training with its greater overall volume will diminish maximum strength thresholds, for just one example. Modern sports training uses periodization models to best mete out the stimulus of exercise to reach athletic objectives. CrossFit apparently believes you can develop all strength and fitness qualities at once. This is another place where enthusiasts have claimed unfair criticism, that in practice workouts are varied in intensity and scalable to individual needs. To this I call bullshit. I’ve watched one CrossFit WOD after another. You go hard in every single one.

And scalable to individual needs?! The individual is nowhere to be found in CrossFit. The Workout of the Day format itself eliminates all subtlety from training. Everyone does the same thing give or take a rep or two. The competitions, so central to the CrossFit ethos as the sport of fitness are about determining who can perform a pre-determined workout with a best time.  Maybe it’s my bias as a personal trainer, but my sentiment is that exercise should take the form of something that’s, you know, personalized, not some mindlessly followed template where everyone does the same workout and then compares results. It’s also worth asking, as my Toronto-based colleague Sam Trotta has, whether all exercise-related goals should be based on competitive rankings and reps/units of time.

Enthusiasts have told me that they are in the best shape of their life because of CrossFit. My first thought, given that many of these claims have come from colleagues – exercise professionals who are paid for their expertise in exactly this area – is, what exactly were you doing before? Second, that’s great, you’re in fantastic shape, but that in no way precludes there being even more effective, far less risky methods to accomplish the same fitness level or better. As Deng Xiao Ping said, ‘the color of cat doesn’t matter so long as it catches mice.’

Moreover, and exercise professionals really should know this, any newly implemented training regimen will garner improvements. That’s what happens when the demands in training get subjected to significant alteration, not because CrossFit is somehow magic. In practice this is rarely what happens, but we should really judge conditioning systems on their results over the long-term, not a few workouts.

Ultimately the most important requirement for any training regimen is whether or not you enjoy it. Personally, I love really demanding circuit training in the CrossFit vein. It’s one reason I’ve been putting workouts together like this for years. I just wish I had thought of branding them. It’s not new or innovative in any way, but that’s really a genius move on the part of CrossFit.  But there are other questions that need to get asked when it comes to conditioning as well. Like, what are the goals of training? And, what are my current abilities? Is this form of training the most appropriate for me? What does the risk to benefit ratio look like for an exercise like a dip, or kipping pull-up? Unfortunately, as enjoyable and wildly popular as CrossFit has become, it’s simply not asking those questions.

For truly advanced education for the exercise professional see www.RTS123.com

State of the Fitness Industry

November 30th, 2010

It’s Monday morning at 6:00am and with a tired but determined demeanor I pass through the turnstile of my local fitness establishment.

This is one of a dozen fitness clubs I’ve been a member of in the last 15 or 20 years, a few of which I’ve even worked in part time as a trainer…but not this one. As a health and fitness professional myself, I can appreciate the motivating qualities and anonymity of a different training environment outside the one I work in for 8-10 hours a day.

As I move towards my first exercise I see out of my peripheral vision a staff trainer demonstrating a movement for their early morning client. The movement involves a lunge (one legged squat) and a Bosu ball.  This is a Swiss exercise ball that has been cut in half to provide trainer and client alike with endless possibilities of adding instability to a given movement or series of movements, whether it is needed or not. Beginning my first movement, out of the corner of my eye I can still see the trainer struggling with teaching his client the previously demonstrated movement. With legs and arms flailing, the frustrated client blurts out, “I just can’t seem to stay up on the ball no matter how hard I try”. After several futile attempts, the client’s unsuccessful endeavor to perform a single leg-supported movement on a Bosu ball is met with the all too familiar phrase, “Alright, that’s enough of that. Let’s go on to the next leg exercise”. I grit my teeth and continue with my workout, and so it goes. This series of events is a daily occurrence in my existence. I see trainer after trainer with seemingly no real knowledge or comprehension of the clients’ needs, capabilities or limitations and I watch client after client attempt to perform exercises for which they do not have the control, skill level or seemingly any understanding of how the movement relates to their goal.

The exercises this particular trainer has chosen for his client this morning have very little to do with the client at all. They have everything to do with an industry that is absolutely in the wrong paradigm.

I have been involved in the fitness industry from the early age of fourteen and at age forty, that’s much more than half of my life. Before long, I developed a keen and lasting interest in how the human body works physiologically and mechanically with a passion few people seemed to share. Oh sure, through the years colleagues read the magazines and did the diets and the workouts, they even studied a little bit of anatomy. They all followed the gurus of the day and if it was new and innovative they were doing it. There was only one problem with all that and it still is happening all around me no matter where I go; most of the fitness professionals out there are still following gurus, not science and especially not common sense.

The ability to think for yourself isn’t automatic, this is a learned skill. No one in the fitness industry is learning how to think! I am starting to believe that there is no one out there teaching the basics for my industry. Principles of resistance, anatomy, mechanics, progression and most of all CONTROL need to be far more present. These fundamental principles are essential to master before performing even the most basic movements and exercise programs that are put out there for all to abscond with back to their clients. Have you ever noticed that it’s never the simple exercises the trainer attempts first on the client to even establish a skill level? Witnessing seemingly qualified trainers jump on the first opportunity to try these advanced movements on the unsuspecting masses is the biggest challenge I face in the gym every day. These practices can easily lead to clients not achieving their goals and more importantly; getting hurt.

No matter what high quality fitness establishment of which I become a member, I am still faced daily with what are supposed to be qualified professionals with very little grasp of what their clients really need. In the many conversations I’ve had with trainers and other fitness professionals over the last several years, I get the sense there is something greatly lacking in the approach of the educating bodies that are launching thousands of “Certified Fitness Professionals” every year into the foray. Don’t get me wrong, I know many of these trainers and fitness pro’s myself. These are smart and conscientious people. These fitness pro’s , however, are being taught to learn a guru’s new movement, system of movements or program and transfer that directly to the client regardless of whether or not the client can operate at the skill level required to perform the movements safely and with some benefit.

Maybe it’s a question of laziness on the fitness industry’s part. Continuing education requires effort and these people never have any time.  As for me, I don’t buy it.  Start teaching the basics again; evaluation, force, resistance, progression, anatomy, and exercise mechanics. Make these things be a requirement to work in the industry, not just a bonus to a somewhat hobbled education.

Peter Chiasson BSc,MATcms,RTSm,MAT/RTS Instructor

Core Strength Inc.

Foam Rollers…?

April 18th, 2010

Foam Rollers, could we possibly be wasting our time?

Read the rest of this entry »

Raising heels while squatting decreases erector activation???? maybe….not.

April 18th, 2010

Question sent in about squat mechanics…

Hey Peter,
Q.
I did a brief search through some scientific journals (abstracts that is), primarily concerning orthopedics as there seems to be more research done in this field concerning foot wear – which can be relatable to squatting with elevated heels – and it’s effect on muscle activation. Now admittedly I did not read a lot of them, but the ones I did read all seem to agree that elevated heels (in the studies case, high heels, etc…) did decrease muscle activation of the back, primarily lower back I believe.

Sorry I did not attach any links as I’m too lazy to go back and find them.

Now elevating my heels has worked in the past, but I used decreased loads – mainly because the movement is simply more difficult therefore certain variables had to be changed. But in the event that one wants to do a full squat by elevating their heels, and at the same time loading the bar at a weight they can handle – lets say – at parallel, I can see the potential for some serious damage.

A.
I will submit, if the heels are elevated and the person’s posture is changed as well as their center of mass being in a different position relative to all of the axes involved in a squat. This alone will change all the moments to the spinal axes in the lumbar region, this would certainly decrease the demand put on the erectors thus decreasing output readable by an EMG. Perhaps one reason for the study’s findings. This would NOT be directly related to the “position” of plantar flexion specifically but more-so the resulting distribution of mass caused by the absence of limitation of dorsiflexion and subsequent allowance for a more erect posture thus decreasing the COM moment of resistance on the erectors themselves. Not magical position changes… just physics.

Great article on Stretching!!!

April 11th, 2010

published 8/20/00, updated 8/23/10

<cite>Runner’s World</cite> recently quoted me as an “expert” on stretching in a good article debunking conventional wisdom.Runner’s World recently quoted me as an “expert” on stretching in a good article debunking conventional wisdom.

Quite a Stretch

Stretching research clearly shows that a stretching habit isn’t good for warmup, injury prevention, preventing or treating muscle soreness, enhancing athletic performance … or even flexibility!

by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canada MORE

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Credentials and qualifications

I am a writer and retired Registered Massage Therapist (unusually well-trained for a massage therapist, a 3000-hour program). I’m almost done with a Bachelor of Health Sciences degree. I am a peer reviewer for The Natural Standard, and a copyeditor for Science-Based Medicine. My most important qualification is more than a decade of workaholic post-graduate study, clinical experience, and constant conversations with readers from around the world, including many experts who have provided countless suggestions and criticisms.

For more information, see: Who Am I to Say? More information about my qualifications, credentials and professional experiences for my readers and customers.

In a nutshell: Stretching just doesn’t have the effects that most runners hope it does. In particular, plentiful recent stretching research has shown that stretching doesn’t (1) warm you up, (2) prevent soreness or injury, or (3) enhance peformance. No other measurable and significant benefit to stretching has ever been proven. Even if it worked, stretching would be inefficient, “proper” technique is controversial at best, and many key muscles are actually biomechanically impossible to stretch — like most of the quadriceps group (which runners never believe without diagrams).  If there’s any hope for stretching, it might be a therapeutic effect on muscle “knots” (myofascial trigger points), but even that theory is full of problems.

Stretching is a comfortable and reassuring ritual for many people — it’s simple, it feels good, and it seems to promise easy benefits. For countless more, athletes and couch potatoes alike, stretching weighs on their conscience — one more thing you are supposed to find the time to do. Can all these people be barking up the wrong tree? Sure they can! And they are.

Why is it that many Kenyans don’t stretch? Why was legendary coach Arthur Lydiard not a fan of stretching? Why does Galloway say, “In my experience runners who stretch are injured more often, and when they stop stretching, the injuries often go away”?

— Bob Cooper, Runner’s World Magazine1

“What a sensible article, and about time somebody exploded the stretching myth! I remember as a schoolboy in South Africa forty years ago always being told to run slowly to warm up for our various rugby, cricket, and soccer games — nobody ever told us to stretch, and over the past ten or so years I’ve been puzzled to see this come in as dogma. As a runner of marathons for years and a GP with injured patients, I’ve never been able to figure out how on earth stretching the heck out of muscles, ligaments, and nerves could (a) warm them up or (b) do the slightest bit of good, and have sometimes been given “the jaundiced eye” when I’ve suggested such to my patients.”

— Peter Houghton, MD, Vancouver (reader feedback)

“I am a soccer referee, and mostly by happy accident began substituting what you call “mobilizing” for various stretches prior to my matches, and I find this does an excellent job of stimulating the muscles, whereas after only stretching I still seem to be tight for the first several minutes. Then I read this article, which corroborates what I have found in practice!”

— Carlos Di Stefano, soccer referee (reader feedback)

There is no “truth” about stretching

The truth about stretching is that there is no truth about stretching to be had: it’s just too complicated a subject. There are too many mysteries about muscle physiology, and too many different ways of stretching. For every answer there are ten more questions, and for every safe assumption there’s an exception. There won’t be a final word about stretching for a long time, and perhaps there never will be.

However, plentiful recent research now shows that stretching as we know it — the kind of stretching that the average person does at the gym, or even the kind of stretching that athletes do — could very well be a waste of time. Articles published in recent years, reviewing hundreds of studies, have concluded that there isn’t much evidence that stretching prevents injury or muscle soreness.23 Adding significantly to the credibility of those reviews, a major year 2000 clinical study of many hundreds of soldiers showed no sign of benefit from and even some risks to stretching.4 Some of this evidence, and similar evidence, is nicely summarized in a recent segment of a CBC Radio One science show (see Exorcizing Myths about Exercise).

Most importantly, trainers, coaches and health care professionals are starting to insist on making recommendations based on evidence, or at least a really convincing physiological rationale … and stretching just doesn’t hold up very well under that scrutiny. Nor is it even a new idea. Consider this great passage from an excellent 1983 Sports Illustrated article about David Moorcroft, a British middle and long distance runner and 5,000 metres world record holder:5

Stacked in a corner of Anderson’s [Moorcroft’s coach] office are bundles of scientific papers. “I’ve tried to interpret the findings of the best physiologists and translate them into sound practices,” says Anderson. “That’s made me a radical. We’ve turned some coaching sacred cows on their ear.”

For one, Anderson dismisses the stretching that most runners do. “It’s rubbish,” he says. “The received idea that by touching your toes you lengthen the fibers in your hamstrings is wrong. Soft tissue stretching like that is a learned skill and doesn’t carry over into running. Dave requires a flexibility, a joint mobility, but running fast is the right kind of stretching for him.”

The world-record holder mutely demonstrates his suppleness by reaching toward his toes. His fingertips get down to about midshin.

‘What Made Him Go So Wonderfully Mad?’ So Inquired a friend of David Moorcroft after the Briton broke the world 5,000 record in an amazing performance, Moore (sportsillustrated.cnn.com)

So why are people stretching?

Why people stretch

When challenged, many stretching enthusiasts have a hard time explaining why they are stretching. The value of stretching has been elevated to dogma without justification. Everyone just “knows” that it’s a good thing.

When pressed for reasons, people will come up with a few predictable stretching goals. Here are the four hopeful reasons for stretching that I hear every day:

  1. warming up
  2. prevention of muscle soreness
  3. prevention of injury
  4. flexibility

And sometimes you also hear:

  1. “performance enhancement” (faster sprinting, for instance)

Not one of these can be supported with evidence, or even has a persuasive rationale. Stretching for these reasons is probably a waste of your time.

Here’s a crazy idea … please consider actually reading the article before complaining about it

Since this article was published in 2000, I have received approximately hundreds of emails like this:

How can you possibly say that stretching is useless? Evil one! Fiend! You probably hate puppies, too! How can you even look at yourself in the mirror?

But I don’t say that “stretching is useless.” I say that stretching is useless for these popular reasons only — the reasons that most people think stretching is good for. There actually are things that stretching is probably good for, and I discuss them. Right here. In this article. In the paragraph directly to the left of this sidebar, even. Which people would know if they read it before sending me nasty messages. Okay?! Sheesh!

Some therapists (and unusually well-informed laypeople) also suggest that stretching is good for relieving muscle knots or trigger points (see Save Yourself from Trigger Points & Myofascial Pain Syndrome!). I’ve even done so myself at times, and there are several good reasons to believe it probably has some beneficial effect. But there are two important caveats: (1) self-stretching is almost certainly an imprecise and inefficient way of relieving trigger points,6 and (2) stretching trigger points can sometimes backfire.7 These questions are considered in much greater detail in an important sister article to this one, Stretching for Trigger Points. This article is concerned only with examining the usual motives people have for stretching — not the more precise therapeutic usages (of which there are probably quite a few).

Stretching research shows that stretching is not an effective warmup

Warming up is an unclear goal with many possible meanings. The most obvious and literal — an actual increase in tissue temperature — is a reasonable goal. It’s literally true that warm muscles function better than cold ones.

However, body heat is generated by metabolic activity, particularly muscle contractions. And it’s impossible to raise your metabolic activity without working up a sweat, which can’t be achieved by stretching alone. You simply cannot “warm up” your muscles by stretching them: that’s like trying to cook a steak by pulling on it. Instead, the best way to warm up is probably to start by doing a kinder/gentler version of the activity you have in mind: e.g., walking before you run.

You simply cannot warm up your muscles by stretching them: that’s like trying to cook a steak by pulling on it.

Metaphorically, “warming up” also refers to readiness for activity or body awareness. You are “warm” in this sense when you are neurologically responsive and coordinated: when your reflexes are sensitive and some adrenalin is pumping. Warmup for its own sake (i.e., without following it up with more intense exercise) is fairly pointless — the goal is to prevent injury and enhance performance. And those goals may be realistic. For instance, research has shown that a warmup routine focussed on these goals actually might provide significant insurance against the number and severity of both traumatic and overuse-caused injuries.8

So, warmups in this second sense might be helpful … but does stretching warm you up in this sense? No, probably not much — certainly no more than a bunch of other exercises you could do — and quite possibly not at all. The most compelling evidence that stretching doesn’t warm you up is the evidence that shows that it doesn’t prevent injury or enhance performance (discussed below). Static stretch is somewhat stimulating to tissue, but in ways that are quite different from most actual activities.

Because of all this, stretching to warm up barely even qualifies as “official” exercise dogma anymore — most professionals actually gave up on it many years ago, and it is passé even in the opinion of many joggers, weekend warriors and other amateurs. Yet there are still far too many people out there stretching before they run, trying to “warm up” almost exclusively by standing still and elongating muscles! Once again, the best way to prepare for an activity is probably to start it slowly.

Stretching research shows that stretching does not prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

Another popular idea about stretching is that it prevents that insidious deep tenderness that follows a hard workout. That soreness is called “delayed onset muscle soreness,” or DOMS for short. People believe that stretching can help DOMS like it’s religion.

I saw a similar example of this when I was in school: a science-minded instructor shared a research paper with us (something no other instructor ever did, which is shocking in itself). The paper suggested that massage therapy has no effect on the phenomenon of delayed-onset muscle soreness, and the evidence was compelling.9 But this was heretical! It was a crushing blow to one of the sacred cows of my profession, most of the class reacted angrily, and the hapless instructor was practically shouted out of the classroom.

I think the really amazing part of that story is that the students’ popular belief was less than two years old and the only basis for it was what they’d heard from instructors in their first year massage therapy classes. Before that, most of them couldn’t have even defined “DOMS”! Yet already it was dogma, essential to their self-image as budding health professionals, a “fact” that they planned to use to promote their services, and so most of them were actually offended by the contradiction. It was a neat demonstration that most people are more interested in emotional continuity than the truth.

People believe that stretching reduces DOMS with the same force. This does not make it true. Unfortunately, the evidence strongly suggests that stretching is completely useless for preventing DOMS. In fact, many studies have shown that nothing short of amputation can prevent DOMS — and certainly not stretching.1011

Think of DOMS as a tax on exercise. As one clever commentator put it, “Only soreness can prevent soreness.”

Stretching research shows that stretching does not prevent injury

According to the evidence, stretching probably does not prevent injury. As I mentioned above, this has been suggested by a combination of recent literature reviews and large clinical studies, some of which I have already cited. Here’s some more.

In 2005, Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine published a review of the scientific evidence to date, and found that the (admittedly limited) evidence “showed stretching had no effect in reducing injuries.”12 Neither poor quality nor higher quality studies reported any injury prevention effect. Regardless of whether stretching was of individual muscles or entire groups, there was no reduction in injury rates.

More experimental research has been done since. For instance, a 2008 study published in American Journal of Sports Medicine showed “no significant differences in incidence of injury” in soldiers doing preventative exercises.13 Half of them participated in an exercise program including 5 exercises for strength, flexibility, and coordination of the lower limbs, and 50 of those soldiers sustained overuse injuries in the lower leg, either knee pain or shin splints. The other 500 soldiers were doing nothing at all to prevent injury in the lower limbs — no specific stretching, strengthening or coordination exercises — and only 48 of them had similar injuries. There were “no significant differences in incidence of injury between the prevention group and the placebo group,” and the authors concluded that the exercises “did not influence the risk of developing overuse knee injuries or medial tibial stress syndrome in subjects undergoing an increase in physical activity.”

However, what is clear is that the exercise regimen certainly included static stretching, and it certainly did not work any prevention miracles for some of the most common athletic injuries from the knees down. If stretching performs that poorly in such an experiment, how good can it possibly be at preventing other injuries? Probably not very.

I’m never surprised by such findings, because I’ve never heard a sensible explanation for how stretching can generally prevent injury. Usually, advocates have a vague notion that “longer” muscles are less likely to get strained: even if garden-variety stretching made muscles longer (which is doubtful in itself), and even if we knew exactly what kind of stretching to do (we don’t), and even if we had the time to stretch every significant muscle group, the benefits would still be relevant to only a small fraction of common sports injuries. An ankle sprain, for instance, or a blown knee — two of the most common of all injuries — probably have nothing to do with muscle length.

In truth, there may prove to be some modest injury prevention benefits to stretching — but I imagine that they are quite specific and missed by most stretching regimens. For instance, it is likely that diligent and specific calf and arch stretching can prevent plantar fasciitis.14 But for “general” injury prevention, I can think of Five Ways To Prevent Sports Injuries that are probably more effective than stretching.

Hardly anyone needs to be more flexible

“I want to be more flexible,” people say, even when they have normal range of motion in every joint. What’s this about? Why are people so worried about being more flexible?

Most people have a normal range of motion — that’s why it’s normal! Unless you are specifically frustrated because you lack sufficient range of motion in a joint to perform a task, you probably don’t need to be more flexible.

Obviously, stretching can be effective at increasing flexibility — acrobats, gymnasts, yogis and martial artists have been doing it for centuries, sometimes achieving uncanny mobility. But these are highly motivated athletes with specific and extreme goals and stretching regimes that would intimidate the rest of us, and with good reason: they often injure themselves along the way.

Stretching probably doesn’t enhance performance (and it definitely doesn’t make you spring faster)

You don’t hear this argument for stretching as often as your hear the others. And yet it comes up, especially with athletes who play team sports. It’s a common practice to stretch when you’re off the field. The habit is probably usually rationalized as an injury prevention method, but many of those athletes will also claim that it enhances performance — that the muscles “spring back” from the stretch and make them run faster. There’s actually an entire stretching book that is largely based on this idea (The Stark Reality of Stretching: An informed approach for all activities and every sport) — but that book is conspicuously full of armchair science, and no actual evidence that the ideas are true.

Predictably, research has shown that stretching does not improve sprinting. More surprisingly, research has shown the opposite. What happens to your sprint if you stretch first? All other things being equal, the athlete who didn’t stretch is going to leave you behind!

Isn’t testing things just a marvelous idea? If you’re not sure what effect stretching has on sprinting, why not just try it? With measurements and stuff! It’s amazing what you can learn.

An Australian research group in Perth did exactly this in early 2009. They rounded up a few athletes and tested their sprinting with and without a stretching regimen between sprints.15 And of course they didn’t just ask the atheletes, “So, how did you feel? Faster? Slower?” No, they cleverly measured the results: “Mean, total (sum of six sprints), first, and best sprint times were recorded for each set” … instead of relying on the athletes impression of how they did.

The results of the tests were clear: “There was a consistent tendency for repeated sprint … times to be slower after the static stretching.” In other words, if you want to perform in a sprinty sport, you might not want to stretch right before getting your cleats dirty.

There are many possible mitigating factors here.16 However, the complexities only emphasize the absurdity of the legions of people who have an oversimplified faith that “stretching works.”

Stretching and irony in Runner’s World

One of the most interesting chapters in my history of criticizing stretching was being quoted in the September, 2009, issue of Runner’s World, in an article called “The Rules Revisited.” Contributing editor, Bob Cooper, asked for my assistance: “Can you tell me everything you know about stretching in 4 or 5 sentences?” An interesting challenge!

The result was a rare and overdue example of critical thinking on the subject of stretching in a major magazine. Cooper does an admirable job of summarizing and challenging several chestnuts of conventional wisdom, including stretching.

But, in a truly dazzling display of irony, Runner’s World published another article in the same issue — “All in the Hips,” p. 46 — that very un-critically promoted another idea that I’ve been busily debunking on this website: that hip strengthening can treat and/or prevent lower leg injuries. It’s based on a pet theory championed since about 2005 almost exclusively by Calgary researcher Reed Ferber. Ferber’s confidence in his theory is way out of proportion to the evidence he presents, and there are many problems with it.17

But he’s in Runner’s World promoting a new myth to a new generation of runners! Even as I am quoted trying to debunk the (still prevalent!) myths of the last generation.

[Cover of Runner’s World Magazine highlighting the article challenging conventional wisdom about stretching, and another which ironically promotes new conventional wisdom about strengthening.

Irony, Man

In a dazzling display of irony, the September, 2009, issue of Runner’s World both quotes me as an expert debunking conventional wisdom about stretching, and uncritically promotes a new myth for a new generation of runners: the hip-strengthening myth.


There is basically no hope that the average reader will know that Ferber’s advice is really weak, just as there was no hope for the last thirty years that the average person would understand how weak stretching science has been. Most will simply believe the article. About a million Runner’s World readers are going to conclude that hip strengthening “probably” works!

“Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after.” Falsehood was a sprinter long before Swift first wrote that in 1710, and little has changed in the 300 years since. So it has always been with stretching: an idea promoted with much greater confidence than has ever been justified by the evidence, and it’s only several decades later that — very slowly — the truth is catching up.

So … is stretching good for anything?

Probably not for the reasons or in the manner most people are stretching, no — not much good, anyway, and certainly not in a way anyone has figured out how to measure.

Undoubtedly, some specific stretching techniques are good for specific purposes … but quite different from the stretching goals that most people actually have in mind, if they have any clear goals at all. My concern is not that stretching itself is useless, but that people are stretching aimlessly and ineffectively, to the exclusion of evidence-based alternatives, such as a proper warm-up or mobilization.

For most people, most of the time, stretching has a lousy effort-to-reward ratio.

I don’t believe that stretching is any more generally useful for people than it is for cats — you do it when you get up in the morning for a few seconds and then you’re off to the sandbox. That feels good — it’s stimulating and enhances your body awareness, it scratches some simple physiological itch, and that’s fine and dandy. But for most people, most of the time? As a time-consuming therapeutic exercise ritual? Stretching simply has a lousy effort-to-reward ratio.

In the next few sections, I will respond to some of the common objections and questions that readers often have.

So if all that’s true, if nothing I ever thought I knew about stretching turns out to be true, then why is it that I feel like I have to stretch or I’m going to seize up like an old piece of leather? Why do I have this compulsion to stretch, and why does it feel so good, if it’s not actually doing anything?

Because it is probably actually doing something! It’s just probably not doing what you thought it was doing. And we don’t really know for sure what it is doing. If we are intellectually honest, we simply have to admit that.

People routinely report that stretching feels good, that it reduces muscle soreness, or that they feel a strong urge to stretch. And I’m one of them. I have a stretching habit because it feels good, and because it feels like I’m going to “seize up” if I don’t. In particular, I stretch my hamstrings regularly and strongly, and it feels as pleasantly essential to my well-being as slipping into a hot bath — but the exact nature of the benefits are completely unclear to me.

It’s probably a complex stew of genuine but mysterious and subtle physiological benefits, plus placebo. I was raised on stretching. Despite my doubt about the conventional wisdom, I tend to emotionally “believe” in stretching just like everyone else — it’s deep in our culture, and, since stretching feels good, it’s easy for my mind to jump to the conclusion that it must be good. But of course that’s not really helpful at all — lots of things feel good without having any clear physiological benefits. Stretching might be like scratching: an undeniably strong impulse, but with almost no relevance to athletic performance or overall health. Or it might be like getting a massage for muscles that are sore with DOMS: undeniably pleasant, but with a proven lack of actual efficacy.

I just don’t know. And based on the research to date, no one else does either.

If feeling good was the only thing that stretching was good for, most people — especially the athletes — would drop it from their exercise routine immediately. Most of us have better things to do. However, if someone firmly declared, “I stretch just to feel good,” I would applaud and say, “Hallelujah! That is an excellent reason to stretch! And one of the few that I can defend!”

And, then again, there may actually be real physiological benefits to stretching — just not the usual ones that get tossed around.

“But I find that stretching helps muscle soreness …”

I hear this one a lot, and I experience it myself as well. There is one plausible and partially understood mechanism by which stretching might actually reduce muscle pain and stiffness: by “releasing” myofascial trigger points, commonly known as muscle knots. I do take this idea seriously and explore it in (excruciating) detail in this article:

SY Stretching for Trigger Points — Is muscle knot release a good reason to stretch?

However, to boil that article down to a single brief paragraph: although stretching probably does help trigger points, I suspect it’s only one piece of a complex puzzle. There are simply too many problems with the theory, too many little niggling doubts, not the least of which is that it’s pretty clear that stretching routinely fails to treat serious trigger points, and can even aggravate them. It’s just too complicated and mysterious a relationship to say anything firm about it. Trigger point release is almost certainly a partial explanation for why stretching sometimes feels good, but it is just as certain that it isn’t the whole story.

“But don’t people just need to be taught how to stretch properly?”

No, they don’t — because it’s impossible. There is just no way, so far, to confirm what a “proper” stretch is. Trying to teaching people “proper” stretching is like trying to teach children “proper” finger painting: there’s no standard.

This is another protest I frequently hear from people who are clinging to the stretching dogma. The choice of words ranges widely, but the sentiment is always the same: stretching is only valuable if you know what you’re doing. And so a number of experts stay in business by advocating a stretching method or rationale that seems to trump all the others. Unfortunately, none of them agree with each other.

My own colleagues are sometimes the worst perpetrators of this idea, that clients just need to be “educated” and their stretching will magically become much more valuable than it used to be. Valuable for what, I am not sure — as we discussed above, we’ve pretty much eliminated all the popular reasons. But even if we generously allow that there may be some other benefit to stretching, who are we to say how it should be achieved? Show me an authoritative source of information about stretching! Show me a “correct stretch”!

Here is a vivid example of the problem. This is an excerpt from one of my text books, a weighty and authoritative tome, a bible of therapeutic exercise:

Several authors have suggested that a period of 20 minutes or longer is necessary for a stretch to be effective and increase range of motion when a low-intensity prolonged mechanical stretch is used.

three citations listed, Therapeutic Exercise, 3rd Ed., Kisner/Colby, p157

Twenty minutes? I don’t know anyone who is stretching a muscle for twenty minutes! I don’t know a single therapist or trainer who is recommending it either! And yet “several authors” have found that it is “necessary”! It would seem to be a “correct” method of stretching, yet it is absent from professional wisdom on the subject … because, of course, it is contradicted in other text books, by other experts, not to mention the fact that it’s completely impractical. Imagine trying to stretch for injury prevention: 20 minutes for each of 20 important muscles!

You can see the problem. Even if you had clear and defensible goals for stretching, it is effectively impossible to form an evidence-based opinion on what “stretching properly” looks like.

The unstretchables: the many muscles that are biomechanically impossible to stretch

Another significant practical difficulty with stretching that never gets discussed: there are several important muscles and muscle groups that are mechanically impossible to stretch, including ones (like the quadriceps) that people think they are stretching. Even if stretching actually had the benefits that people want to attribute to it — which it clearly does not — those benefits would still not actually be available in large sections of the body. See:

The Unstretchables: Ten major muscles you can’t stretch, no matter how hard you try

“But isn’t yoga all about stretching? An Yoga has lots of benefits, doesn’t it?”

Yes, it is, and yes, it does — but not the benefits that people normally attribute to stretching. Same with qigong, and the martial arts are full of stretching techniques — some of them appropriated from the modern Western fitness tradition, and others inherited from traditional practices. I advocate this kind of stretching elsewhere in my writings. So what’s the difference?

The difference is in intention. The intention of stretching in the context of good qigong, yoga or martial arts is to focus the mind, to stimulate vitality through a combination of mental and physical exercise. The intention is everything — without the intention, you might as well not bother with these activities.

Most westerners stretch without the foggiest notion of this underlying complexity. Stretching is generally stimulating to body awareness, of course: but that awareness is unsophisticated and incidental, rarely involving any insight more complex than “ooh, that muscle sure is sore.” Without education about intent — without a rich philosophical context — the value of stretching in yoga is just as dubious as it is in any other situation.

And stretching in yoga also involves risks. Too often people perceive yoga as a wholesome and harmless activity, when injuries are actually common. As with dancing or martial arts, there are many ways to hurt yourself practicing yoga.

Other interesting reading relevant to stretching:

What’s New In this Article?

This article dates back to 2000 and has been updated dozens of times over the years. I started logging changes to it in March of 2010.

Monday, March 22, 2010 — Corrected several typographic errors, re-wrote the section of warm-ups to make it clearer, and added a reference (Tiidus) that had been missing for much too long, one of those things I’ve been meaning to get to for ages.

Notes

  1. Cooper, Bob. “The Rules Revisited.” Runner’s World. September, 2009. p. 59. Return to text.
  2. Shrier. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 1999. This paper and Herbet are literature reviews: that is, they are reviews of many other studies. They both show many contradictions in existing research, but they both conclude that there is no convincing evidence that stretching is useful. Return to text.
  3. Herbet et al. British Medical Journal. 2002. Return to text.
  4. Pope RP, Herbert RD, Kirwan JD, et al. A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2000;32:271–7, abstract. Return to text.
  5. Tip of the hat to reader Jennifer M, who sent me this. Jennifer added that this passage reminded her of her father, “who remained competitive at the 800m until into his 60s, but could never come close to touching his toes.” Return to text.
  6. Davies et al. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, p8. “Trying to get at … relatively small trigger points by stretching whole groups of recalcitrant muscles seemed unnecessarily indirected and inefficient.” Return to text.
  7. Simons et al. Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction, pp127–135. Many therapists mistakenly believe that Travell and Simons’ well-documented “spray and stretch” method means that stretching is unequivocally good for trigger points. But the point of the vapocoolant spray is to “distract” the nervous system from the pain of stretching a dysfunctional muscle, which has both small patches of hypercontracted sarcomeres (trigger points) and long stretches of sarcomeres that are overextended. Without the spray, muscles in this predicament may contract defensively. Consequently, Travell and Simons do not recommend stretching trigger points without the spray. Return to text.
  8. Soligard et al. British Medical Journal. 2008. In 2008, Norwegian researchers compared injuries in over a thousand female footballers who participated in such a warmup for a season, to another several hundred who didn’t. The athletes with the warmup had fewer traumatic injuries, fewer overuse injuries, and the injuries they did have were less severe. Static stretching was not part of the warmup. “Active stretching” was … but “active stretching” is what I would call “mobilizations” — doing moving lunges, for instance — as opposed to the kind of static or passive stretching that most people think of when they think of stretching. Return to text.
  9. I am not certain, but I believe this is the paper in question: Tiidus. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. 1997. Return to text.
  10. Cheung K, Hume P, Maxwell L. Delayed onset muscle soreness : treatment strategies and performance factors. Sports Medicine 2003;33(2):145-64, abstract. From the abstract: “Cryotherapy, stretching, homeopathy, ultrasound and electrical current modalities have demonstrated no effect on the alleviation of muscle soreness or other DOMS symptoms.” Return to text.
  11. Weber MD, Serevedio FJ, Woodall WR. The Effects of Three Modalities on Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. Journal of Orthopedicand Sports Physical Therapy, 20(5):236-42, 1994 November, abstract. From the abstract: “ …analysis indicated no statistically significant differences between massage, microcurrent electrical stimulation, upper body ergometry, and control groups.” Return to text.
  12. Hart. “Effect of stretching on sport injury risk: a review.” Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine. 2005. Full Abstract:

    OBJECTIVE: Effect of Stretching on Sport Injury Risk: a Review To assess the evidence for the effectiveness of stretching for the prevention of injuries in sports.

    DATA SOURCES: MEDLINE (1966 to September, 2002), Current Contents, Biomedical Collection, Dissertation Abstracts, the Cochrane Library, and SPORTDiscus were searched for articles in all languages using terms including stretching, flexibility, injury, epidemiology, and injury prevention. Reference lists were searched and experts contacted for further relevant studies.

    STUDY SELECTION: Criteria for inclusion were randomized trials or cohort studies of interventions that included stretching compared with other interventions, with participants who were engaged in sporting or fitness activities. One author identified 361 articles reporting on flexibility, methods and effects of stretching, risk factors for injury, and injury prevention, of which 6 articles fulfilled the inclusion criteria for meta-analysis.

    DATA EXTRACTION: Three independent reviewers blinded to the authors and institutions of the investigations assessed the methodologic quality of the studies (100-point scale) and reached consensus on disagreements. Details of study participants, interventions, and outcomes were extracted. Weighted pooled odds ratios were calculated for effects of interventions on an intention-to-treat basis.

    MAIN RESULTS: Reduction in total injuries (shin splints, tibial stress reaction, sprains/strains, and lower-extremity and -limb injuries) with either stretching of specific leg-muscle groups or multiple muscle groups was not found in 5 controlled studies (odds ratio [OR] 0.93; 95% CI, 0.78 to 1.11). Reduction in injuries was not significantly greater for stretching of specific muscles (OR, 0.80; CI, 0.54-1.14) or multiple muscle groups (OR, 0.96; CI, 0.71-1.28). Combining the 3 ratings of methodologic quality, median scores were 29 to 60/100. After adjustment for confounders, low quality studies did not show a greater reduction in injuries with stretching (OR, 0.88; CI, 0.67-1.15) compared with high quality studies (OR, 0.97; CI, 0.77-1.22). Stretching to improve flexibility, adverse effects of stretching, and effects of warm up were not assessed by appropriate intervention studies.

    CONCLUSION: Limited evidence showed stretching had no effect in reducing injuries.

    Return to text.

  13. Brushøj et al. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2008. Return to text.
  14. There is extensive experimental evidence showing that stretching is effective treatment for plantar fasciitis. See Wolgin, Giovanni, Batt, Barry and Powell. Return to text.
  15. Beckett et al. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2009. Return to text.
  16. The most obvious wrinkle is that the negative impact of static stretching on sprinting might be short term — were the runners slowed down for only ten minutes? Twenty minutes? As much as sixty? Another important consideration is that the potential therapeutic effects of stretching — still remarkably unproven at this late date in history, but still hypothetically possible — could conceivably outweigh the relatively small cost of being slowed down. For instance, if (big if) stretching significantly stretching reduced the risk of a muscle strain, would that risk reduction be worth the cost to sprinting speed? Probably! If. Return to text.
  17. For more detail, see another article on SaveYourself.ca, Does Hip Strengthening Work for IT Band Syndrome? Despite its popularity, “weak hips” is a weak theory, and there is no compelling evidence that hip strengthening can treat or prevent running overuse injuries of leg.