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Massage Today
June, 2010, Vol. 10, Issue 06

Effective Stretching Techniques

By Ben Benjamin, PhD

Q: The most effective way to stretch a muscle is to keep it in a stretched position for 30 to 60 seconds, allowing the structure to release gradually. True or False?

A: False. Traditionally, exercise specialists have recommended holding stretches for fairly long periods of time, up to 60 seconds. (This is referred to as static stretching.) However, research has shown that such prolonged stretching initiates the myotatic reflex (commonly referred to as the stretch reflex)--a defensive mechanism that is designed to prevent muscles from stretching too far. In response, the muscle reflexively contracts, which is the opposite of what you want to happen. Static stretching also decreases blood flow within the tissue and leads to a buildup of waste products, such as lactic acid, that contribute to muscle fatigue and soreness. When people stretch in this way, they're working against themselves, causing a contraction of the very muscles they're trying to lengthen (sort of like trying to drive a car with the parking brake on). As a result, the tendons and ligaments may get stretched more than the muscles, which can lead to tendon irritation or injury and even ligament laxity, and thus predispose these structures to future injury.

Static stretching relies on a principle known as stress relaxation: when muscles and connective tissues are held at a constant length, they eventually fatigue, release, and lengthen. In addition to promoting muscle fatigue, this type of action is also relatively slow. You can achieve results much more quickly by using 6-10 repetitions of shorter stretches. This method can help increase the range of motion in a particular area by 30 to 60 degrees in a relatively short period of time.

When teaching my clients about stretching for injury prevention or rehabilitation, or when advising them about the stretching methods they already use, I strongly encourage them to hold each stretch for just two seconds, with multiple repetitions. All the stretches I teach are drawn from Aaron Mattes's Active Isolated Stretching protocols, which follow these and other guidelines to achieve optimal efficiency and effectiveness.

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