Stretching Truths

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If any lesson stuck during physical education class, it was probably “stretch but don't bounce!” Bouncing, we were darkly warned, would lead to certain injury, from muscular microtears to flayed hamstrings.

But, hey, what did Coach know? That well-worn admonition no longer rings true. Bouncing has had a 1990s image makeover–it's now called ballistic stretching, and it has expert fans. “Bouncing became a no-no in the sixties,” says Lucille Smith, an exercise physiologist at Northeastern Illinois University who specializes in delayed onset muscle soreness, a condition once thought to be induced by bouncing. “But the fear wasn't really warranted. In truth, you could even get more flexibility with ballistic stretching than with static.

Happily, to do this you needn't learn new tricks–just revert to your bad habits. “Add gentle bounces down at the end of a regular static stretch,” says Smith, “about one per second.” But don't return to your starting position with each bounce. “The idea is to stay down, rising just enough to ease the tension on the muscle and connective tissue before bobbing again.”

Ballistic stretching is a nice complement to any endurance routine, unless you're injured. But Smith says it's especially useful for athletes who need quick bursts of power, say, at the finish of a 5k, because it mimics the quick muscular contractions of sprinting. Think of it as a 50-yard dash, reaching for your toes.

But don't go overboard. Bouncing too rigorously will strain your muscles, just as Coach once overcautiously barked. “Pain is a good indication that you've overdone it,” Smith says. So consider yourself warned: If you get carried away, you'll have to drop and give us 40.

–Scott Sutherland

In 1993, after six years as an elite volleyball player, Troy Tanner was ready to hang up his knee pads. He'd competed as a member of the gold-medal U.S. squad in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but after two knee operations he could no longer count on finishing a tournament. “I was going to quit,” says Tanner, 33. Then fellow beach pro Karch Kiraly introduced him to, of all things, a flexibility coach. Tanner began a regular stretching program with San Clemente, California-based Adrian Crook and in 1994 completed his first injury-free season in seven years. Today, ranked 13th on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour, he admits, “I never thought I'd still be competing at this level.”

Not everyone is so sanguine these days about stretching, which remains a contentious issue. Trainers and physiologists debate its benefits and whether an athlete gains more by stretching before a workout, after a workout, separately from a workout–or not at all. They also argue about Adrian Crook and his followers, whose increasing prominence has added a new–and suspect, some experts say–ingredient to the discussion: the ascendance of holistic, total-body-elasticity gurus. These coaches, of whom Crook is the most notable, promote long sessions of acrobatic movement in hopes of becoming supple enough to, for example, stand with your leg lifted Gumby-style over your head–Crook's trademark pose. Such flexibility, Crook claims, has a ripple effect on a person's overall fitness. “You can become very, very powerful by maximizing your flexibility,” he says. “If you're not balanced, you're weak, no matter how strong your muscles are.”

In response to such assertions, more traditional stretching experts reply, Huh? “How many people really need to be able to do the splits?” asks Bob Anderson, a Colorado-based fitness consultant whose 1980 book Stretching has sold some two million copies and was reprinted in 1996. “Most people simply don't want to put any more time or energy into being flexible.”

By the Book or by Crook?
Traditional flexibility routines, the kind most athletes learned from their high school coaches, consist of so-called static stretches. In these, you isolate one muscle or a small, discrete group of muscles, either pull or push, and then hold. Remember the hurdler stretch, in which you sit on the ground with one leg extended and the other doubled back, then bend toward the straightened knee? That's a classic static exercise.
Crook, as you might guess, considers static stretches insufficient. “Most of them are done lying on the ground, which takes the ankle out of the equation,” he says. “But most movement starts with the ankle. So it's important for both legs to share the stress that your torso puts on them.”

Therein lies the crux of Crook's method, which consists of “a progressive system of stretches that are actually self-induced massages.” In practice, Crook's typical routine looks somewhat like a cross between tai chi and yoga, with one stretch blending into the next. You begin with simple “loosening moves” like the waist rotation, in which you twirl your midsection to “hit all the hours on the clock,” and ultimately finish with such advanced, balletic moves as the walking one-legged squat, a contorted maneuver in which you hook one leg behind the other knee and dip. “For each movement, there is a movement that leads into it,” Crook says. He declines to offer further specifics about his program, advising those interested to call for his instructional video ($40; 800-463-5393).

Such continually moving stretches are not innovative in themselves, of course. Physiologists and trainers have long recommended incorporating “dynamic” stretching into a regular workout routine because it loosens more muscles than static stretching alone. What's unique about the approach Crook recommends is that, with it, a stretching routine no longer serves as a warm-up or cool-down appended to a “real” workout; it constitutes a workout in itself, separate from aerobic or weight work. And most important, it's designed to yield payoffs all its own. Crook promises that his stretching program, done for at least 30 minutes four times a week, will not merely loosen tight muscles, but also increase balance and strength. “There's a lot of power inside flexibility,” he says.

Experts such as Eric Lawson, the U.S. Olympic Committee's head of strength and conditioning physiology, think that claim is a bit much, to say the least. “The only time I can imagine stretching actually helping to build strength is if someone has been sick or injured, and the muscles are atrophied to begin with,” he says. And no studies have proved that stretching by itself can make you stronger.

But Lawson, who works with athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, doesn't discount a Crook-style program altogether. In fact, he advocates regular, full-body stretching–but his preferred method involves not constant movement and chorus-line overhead kicks, but a careful mix of basic dynamic stretches (see “Options for the Discriminating Stretcher”) and their more advanced cousin, a highly evolved category of stretching with a rather unwieldy name: proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, or PNF.

PNF stretches, unlike flowing, dynamic moves, work isolated muscles much like static stretches do, but with noticeably greater improvement in flexibility. With PNF, Lawson says, you manipulate a particular muscle by resisting pressure applied to it, then relaxing, then increasing the pressure. This technique bypasses a safety mechanism in the muscles, the Golgi tendon organ, which usually locks up a muscle when it becomes overstressed. For reasons physiologists have not completely figured out yet, the PNF cycle of pushing and then relaxing causes neural signals to sidestep the Golgi organ, allowing you to push farther than you otherwise could. “You'd be amazed at the amount of stretch you can get,” says Lawson.

A Flexible Schedule
But just how much stretch does an athlete actually need? Is 30 minutes of Crook preferable to ten minutes of PNF? The answer is, Good question. “If you want to be able to do the splits, fine,” says Bob Anderson. “But most athletes, I think, are like me. I'm a runner and mountain biker, and I want enough range of motion to be able to run and bike. To do that, you don't even need to be able to touch your toes.”

Anderson suggests that athletes pressed for time should stick with simple, sport- specific routines. Concentrate, he says, on the muscles that tighten up in your sport. Runners would worry most about their hamstrings; cyclists, their quads; paddlers, their shoulders. This makes for a fast, snappy, personalized program, one that any athlete should have enough time and attention span to maintain.

Lawson, on the other hand, advocates a more generic series of stretches suitable for everyone, with one set of exercises concentrating on the legs, another on the back, and the last on the shoulders. This less targeted approach, he says, helps ensure that you don't develop muscle imbalances–for instance, that a runner's quads don't become tight while he concentrates on stretching his hamstrings.

Both Lawson and Anderson, however, believe stretching should serve as an adjunct to an aerobic or weight workout; neither of them considers flexibility an end in itself. Both also urge that you stretch only after a ten-minute aerobic warm-up. This gets the blood pumping through your limbs, boosting muscle temperature and enzyme activity and making your muscles more elastic and safer to stretch.

Warm up all you want, says Crook, as long as you don't sell stretching short. He defends his arguably obsessive program by saying flexibility contributes to overall fitness just as much as a strong heart and lungs. “In the mainstream, cardiovascular and strength training have been popular for years,” he says. “But it's most often a diminished range of motion that ages us prematurely.” In other words, Crook believes that limberness will, quite simply, keep you youthful. Indeed, Crook, at 43, can touch his nose to his toes and, as he shows in photo after photo, stand with his leg pointed straight skyward. Which might not impress physiologists, but could certainly help liven up a blind date.

Scott Sutherland, a frequent contributor to Outside, is an avid runner and nordic skier who lives in Maine.