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Massage Today
May, 2008, Vol. 08, Issue 05

To Stretch or Not to Stretch

By John G. Louis, CMT

Last fall, I visited my son's elementary school for an event in the gymnasium. I was very surprised to find some antiquated stretching exercises posted on the wall for use in physical education classes. The old "hurdler's stretch" and "cross your legs and touch your toes" stretches were posted in clear view. These were the stretches we did in gym class in the '70s. We know now that in addition to being ineffective, they also may be very harmful.

The hurdler's stretch causes significant twisting to the lumbar spine and the sacroiliac joint, which actually might cause more stress on the hamstrings. This stretch is supposed to help, but could actually hurt the very area being addressed. Additionally, the stretch puts unhealthy stress on the medial collateral ligament in the leg that is tucked back during the stretch. The cross your legs and touch your toes stretch puts unhealthy stress on the lateral collateral ligament bilaterally. Thankfully, the staff has since removed these stretches from the wall, and I believe their use has been discontinued altogether.

While working with professional athletes extensively since 1980, I have developed a number of reservations about stretching as a whole. Much of my philosophy comes from my emphasis on addressing trigger points. We know from the comprehensive work of Travell and Simons that stretching without deactivating the trigger points in treating an injury can cause more harm than good. In my opinion, if we are addressing the trigger points properly, combined with other effective techniques; i.e., stripping and cross-fiber friction, there shouldn't be a real need for stretching.

Using this approach, I believe we are bringing about what I call "hyperspecific passive stretching." We're going right to the core of the issue when we address the tissue this way, potentially bringing about substantial therapeutic change. For this reason, I almost never use traditional stretching exercises as part of my treatment protocols, in part because I feel it's redundant if we're addressing the tissue comprehensively in this manner. I also will often recommend that my clients not stretch at all following treatment in order to let the tissue rest and acclimate to the treatment performed.

Just recently, I treated a client of mine with a shoulder injury. I worked the tissue thoroughly with trigger-point work, stripping and friction work. His range of motion increased significantly, and his pain was markedly reduced. I encouraged him to rest for a few days and not stretch. I chatted with him a few days later and he sheepishly admitted he was feeling so good that he let his personal trainer stretch him; the pain and decreased range returned. He was well on his way to recovery until he was stretched.

However, I am well aware of several very talented stretching experts who are teaching what they purport to be excellent techniques. I know of one educator in particular who has achieved amazing results with stretching, and he is effectively teaching many others to achieve the same. I have had very good experiences myself with Thai massage stretching.

However, I will not allow just anyone to stretch me. Before receiving massage, I make a point of telling the therapist not to stretch me if they have not had advanced training. Unfortunately, I believe there are many therapists who are not stretching their clients/patients properly. Physical therapists, athletic trainers and personal trainers are all part of this group, in my view. Again, I strongly believe we need to be sure we are deactivating the trigger points before using traditional stretching techniques.

I have seen stretching successfully used by the professional soccer teams I worked with in the '80s. There was significant slow warm-up that lasted 20 to 30 minutes before any stretching took place. The warm-up consisted of slowly jogging up and down the field as a group. Every second time down the field, the coach would introduce the group to a gentle movement. It could be skipping one time and lifting their knees a little higher than usual the next time. Giving the tissue plenty of time to warm naturally seems to really make a positive difference.

Neuromuscular massage training is vitally important, in my view, for those who aspire to perform advanced therapeutic work. There are some terrific educators out there. Please seek them out. You won't be disappointed.

Click here for previous articles by John G. Louis, CMT.


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