does stretching work?
May 11, 2005 12:25 AM   Subscribe

Does stretching work? Does it increase flexibility in adults or just maintain it?

I am a pretty serious cyclist, but my lack of flexibility causes me a lot of aggro. My left hamstring and right IT band are pretty tight, so I get a lot of repetitive stress pain.

Now the standard remedy I hear from everyone (doctors, physiotherapists, personal trainers, etc) is that I should do stretching. I admit that I haven't been following their advice properly, as I am not someone who is disciplined enough to do it like clockwork. But I would like to know whether or not stretching actually works.

If you're about 30 (like me), can you actually increase your flexibility? From the literature I've come across, there seem to be two schools of thought:

a) once you're out of adolescence, you can only maintain your existing range of motion, you cannot increase it
b) you can increase your range of motion at any age with regular and proper stretching, no matter how old you are

Which is the better supported opinion? Your personal experiences would be appreciated, and links to studies in reputable, peer-reviewed publications would be even better.
posted by randomstriker to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
(B) You can increse your range of motion at any age. Ask or see any one at any age experienced YOGA. I know serveral older friends who can do things that no human should do.

Problem is if you stop stretch those specific muscles, they will just go back to previous state. But as far as I know stretching is very good for body and mind. Especially before jogging or cycling. It should reduce injuries and your muscle will get extra work out. By consistantly stretching your muscles, they will get relaxed and tender. This should help blood flow and excite overall internal body fluid and oxygen. This is always good to anyones health and mind.

People who stoped streching or excercise for a while definatly feel tensed and stressed compared to previous times. This is not abnormal... It is actually your body going back to normal un-excercised stage (which is what most people feel normally... which is not a good thing)
posted by curiousleo at 12:40 AM on May 11, 2005

Actually, stretching *after* exercise is more beneficial. IANADoctor, but I was married to a champion distance runner, and I trust her advice on these matters. Do warm up before exercising, but stretch after.

And, yes, (B) is correct.
posted by LordSludge at 12:50 AM on May 11, 2005

Works for this adult.

Eg, at the start of this year, I could barely get into a bridge. I can now start with hands and feet on the floor, facing down, and roll over into a good high bridge limb by limb. I have never been able to do this before. I'm 35, and I practise this particular movement 2-3 times per week.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:55 AM on May 11, 2005

Cycling is likely to make your hamstrings less flexible (it does in my experience as a cyclist). I recommend trying yoga as it offers many benefits to the body and mind besides increasing flexibility (yes, at any age). See this thread for more info. However, if you do try it, don't expect or make it your goal to become immediately super-bendy, it probably won't happen: see this discussion of yoga teacher Paul Grilley's ideas on anatomy and stretching.
posted by amestoy at 1:49 AM on May 11, 2005

yoga's friggan awesome.
posted by Mach5 at 2:31 AM on May 11, 2005

So doctors, physiotherapists, and personal trainers have said you need to stretch to stop your constant injuries and you, instead of doing it, did a lot of research to refute their claims? They're all pretty authoritative on the subject.
posted by Napierzaza at 3:54 AM on May 11, 2005

Yoga, yoga, yoga.... and yoga.

Moreover, yoga, much like Pilates, helps increase functional muscle strength (as opposed to bulky weightlifting type muscles), which can only help you with your cycling.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 5:57 AM on May 11, 2005

An anecdotal pile on. A year ago, I couldn't even think about crossing my legs. If needed to look at my foot, well, that was too bad, really. After 8 months of following a regular stretching routine as part of going to the gym, I'm easily able to cross them and sit with them crossed. My thighs have only decreased in size by an inch or two, which is insignificant in the face of their massive girth, so it's not the weightloss that made the difference, but the stretching.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:57 AM on May 11, 2005

I can also attest to yoga dramatically increasing flexibility. I also agree with amestoy, in that it won't happen overnight. And that if you don't keep it up, your muscles will just revert to their old, stiff ways.
posted by fabesfaves at 5:59 AM on May 11, 2005

Yeah, you can increase flexibility even if you're not a teenager any more. I can now touch my leg to my nose while standing up straight which I couldn't do about a year ago. If I stop these flexibility exercises it'll go away because it's not part of a normally useful range of motion.

When I'm pushing heavy weights stretching beforehand seems to help me avoid some of the "it hurts so bad I can't move"itis the day after. If I stretch between sets, especially biceps, triceps and pectorals I can crank out more reps.

I'm 36 years old and don't have a body most people would assume is very flexible.
posted by substrate at 6:03 AM on May 11, 2005

Keep up the stretching, Jacquilynne, but crossing your legs is bad for you. I assume that becoming able to do so wasn't the main purpose of your regimen.
posted by beagle at 6:04 AM on May 11, 2005

I've read somewhere that, if you're a runner (which also seems to lessen flexibility), yoga isn't a good idea because having your joints too mobile increases the risk of injury. Is that rubbish?
posted by penguin pie at 7:02 AM on May 11, 2005

That's rubbish, penguin pie. You can be strong and flexible simultaneously. (IANAD.)

Active Isolated Stretch and The Wharton's Stretch Book are worth looking into. The key to stretching is being sensitive to your muscles - if they aren't relaxed as you stretch you'll do no good and possibly be more likely to get injured. Yoga deals with this through relaxation. AIS has you activate the opposing muscle and release the stretch before the muscles tighten up.
posted by callmejay at 7:27 AM on May 11, 2005

Stretching does work, and benefits can be had with very little effort or time invested. Here is a good internet resource on what happens physiologically when you stretch and some stretching programs etc. It's well worth a read.

I haven't done yoga, but I would actually recommend against it, simply because it requires the kind of commitment that you seem to not want to make. Try PNF stretching (explained in link above, or google it) three times a week, with light static stretching in between. A basic routine for your lower body will not take more than 15 minutes. You should see some results within a couple of weeks. You have to keep it up, though. I agree that your stretching should really be done after working out.

When I was a biker I would stretch my calves and quads on the bike, after riding for a while. I would unclip and pull up on my ankle on each side to stretch my quad; I would use the pedal axle as a stationary object at the bottom of my pedal stroke in order to stretch my calf.

penguin pie-there is some debate about being 'too loose' for running. Runners tend to be pretty tight. I've never met a serious runner who was in danger of being too loose.
posted by OmieWise at 7:34 AM on May 11, 2005

Forgot the bleeding link: Internet Stretching Guide.
posted by OmieWise at 7:35 AM on May 11, 2005

beagle, I know, it's just the most visible and easiest to relate to change that is directly attributable to stretching for me. 'I can cross my legs' seems more real than 'well, I used to be able to barely touch the floor with my finger tips and now can lay my whole fingers down on it' or 'when trying to link my arms behind my back, I've gone from a 2 inch gap to an inch and a half overlap'. But those are also real results from stretching.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:40 AM on May 11, 2005

Response by poster: Napierzaza, I'm not looking to refute their claims, I'm looking for proof that it works to inspire me to change my undisciplined ways. I'm the type who gets demotivated if I don't see short-term results -- so I need encouragement that long-term results are indeed within my reach.
posted by randomstriker at 8:33 AM on May 11, 2005

Yoga Journal has an article specifically discussing yoga poses that might be of benefit to cyclists. You can find instructions for the poses described in the box to the left of the article.

And yes, "doing yoga" requires commitment, but you can also just practice a few of the poses daily/weekly/whatever and still see some benefit, especially if you're looking for flexibility rather than enlightenment.
posted by occhiblu at 9:01 AM on May 11, 2005

As an over-30 cyclist with the IT-band from hell, I can definitely say that stretching is important. Email me (its in the profile) and I can lend you some advice on managing the IT-band pain.
posted by neilkod at 9:57 AM on May 11, 2005

Back in my gymnastics days, we opened -and- ended with 15-30 minutes of stretches, warm up and warm down. Instructors too was the tradition at my gym, and every time we had new instructors visit for a while or hire in, we'd notice their flexibility increase obviously and rapidly... didn't seem to matter how old or young they were.

As for flexibility and cycling, I know that if I cycle without doing enough stretching I invariably get charlie horse cramps -- if I do, then I don't. As always, YMMV.
posted by Pufferish at 10:06 AM on May 11, 2005

Yoga increases flexibility and strength (actual buff muscle-building strength, raaa!) in all ages.
posted by Specklet at 10:40 AM on May 11, 2005

This is a very detailed analysis of the causes and treatments of IT Band pain. It includes a specific set of exercises to treat and prevent the problem, which is usually only mildly decreased by stretching. The exercise is kind of complex, but well-described, and I know runners who have used it to cure ITB syndrome.
posted by OmieWise at 10:49 AM on May 11, 2005

I'll agree with everyone above that it is certainly possible to make significant gains in flexibility as an adult. I'll add a couple of caveats, though.

Technique is important. If you stretch incorrectly (bouncing, stretching while cold, forcing a stretch too quickly), you not only run the risk of injury, but you won't make much progress on you flexibility either. You should warm up your muscles before stretching, then take the time to hold each stretch until you feel your muscles relax into the movement.

A personal observation: There are two main factors limiting flexibility. The first is the actual physical length of the muscles involved. The second is the nervous system, which maintains a certain level of tension in each muscle. When too much tension is maintained in a muscle, you're not able to stretch it to its maximum length. The body will only invest the resources in rebuilding longer muscle fibers if you regularly stretch the muscles near the limits of their full physical length. That means you have to deal with the tension limitation first. Whenever I come back to stretching/yoga after a period of slacking off, I tend to make rapid improvements in my flexibility in the first few weeks. That's because I'm just relearning how to fully relax my muscles into a full stretch. Once I've gotten to that point, I usually hit a plateau, where further improvement is much slower. That's because now I actually have to develop longer muscles, which is a longer process. If you get to this point, just keep on working slowly and consistently - you'll still make progress.
posted by tdismukes at 11:21 AM on May 11, 2005

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