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For about as long as there have been gyms, trainers and other fitness experts have been telling people who exercise that stretching is essential for preventing injury. The truth of the assertion that stretching prevents injury, however, is not entirely clear-cut.

Part of the reason there isn't a good scientific answer to the question of the benefit of stretching is that it is very hard to get data. Suppose you were an exercise physiologist, and you wanted to find out whether stretching prevented injuries. You could recruit a group of exercisers and ask them at the beginning of your study to keep track of how many times they worked out, how often they did stretches, and whether they suffered injuries. That would seem to answer the question.

In the real world, this approach doesn't tell investigators very much. When people stretch on a regular basis, they typically do their stretches more carefully. They also tend to do more exercises. Any kind of link between stretching and injury might simply suggest that the respondent to the survey is just more careful about warm ups.

The other difficulty in studying the value of stretching is that it probably has both short-term and long-term effects. In the short term, stretches increase the range of motion around a joint and decrease muscle stiffness. Over the long term, stretching probably contributes to a permanent increase in flexibility, which would mean that people who don't still do stretches continue to have protection against injury.

That is why anything I can tell you here is basically an informed guess. However, I can articulate a good rule of thumb:

Both stretching too much and not stretching enough increase the risk of injury.

In a study conducted by the US Army, where the exact amount of stretching and the exact exercises performed in a workout could be controlled, researchers found that soldiers who stretched the most and soldiers who stretched the least both had higher rates of injury than soldiers who did numbers of stretches closer to the average.

Moreover, flexibility itself is, to a large extent, genetic. Dr Malachy McHugh, the director of research for the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an expert on flexibility, says that about 70 percent of the differences in flexibility among individuals can be attributed to the presence or absence of a gene called COL5A1. There is a version of the gene that makes you very flexible, and another version of the gene that does not. Just because you are flexible, you are not necessarily injury-proof.

There is even some scientific evidence that stretching has no effect on muscle flexibility at all, at least in some individuals. Physiotherapist Gregory Lehman goes so far as to suggest that stretching only trains the brain to tolerate pain. The more you stretch, the less you notice the pain that exercise causes.

Further complicating matters, most modern exercise physiologists believe that static stretching before exercise does nothing to prevent exercise, although active stretching after exercise may be helpful. 

What, then, is the best way to do your stretches?
  • Do active stretching, not passive stretching. Focus on increasing your range of motion, not on increasing your tolerance of pain.
  • Do active stretching both before and after exercise. "Shaking off" muscle pain after a workout may do you more good than preparing yourself for the session.
  • Don't work on achieving flexibility you don't really need. Most of us never need to be able to scratch our ears with our toes, for example.

Don't stress out over stretching. Too much stretching may cause joints to become "floppy." No stretching at all, either before or after a workout, probably leads to stiffness. The right amount of stretching for you, done until you feel good, not to meet an artificial goal, will reduce injuries.

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