Stretching schools of thought
Coaches advocate different approaches to the overlooked art
Ted Brock, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, July 28, 2002
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle.


Kerri Barrett has seen the light go on.

She says that when she's talking to a group of younger kids, "I'll tell them that, by increasing flexibility, you're increasing stride rate and stride length. They'll say, 'Whatever.' "

"Then I'll tell them the average high school athlete's stride length is 6 1/2to 7 feet, that Carl Lewis' was 10 feet, that the world's fastest animal, the cheetah, has a stride length of 22 feet -- and if they increase their stride length and stride rate and take that out on the soccer field or the basketball court or the track, they'll be faster.

"Then they stretch."

Barrett, a former three-year starter for the women's basketball team at the University of California at Berkeley, joined the sports medicine program at her alma mater in 1999 as an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach. She teaches whys and hows of flexibility training to Cal's athletic teams, and sees a parallel between college athletes and the general population.

"When we step out on the court or the field, we're under time constraints," Barrett says.

"So we have a simple program that takes 15 to 20 minutes. It begins with a dynamic warmup, followed by stretching functionally (i.e., fitting the stretching routine to the specific sport). For example, if I'm working with the basketball team, I'll have them do high-knee skipping to half court and lunge-walking for their hip flexors. Both are good for running mechanics. The dynamic warmup takes five minutes, increases each athlete's body temperature and gets him or her ready for a good stretch."

If you've got your yellow highlighter in hand, run it over the part about beginning with a warmup -- five to 10 minutes of walking, light jogging or low rpm on a stationary bike, to name three examples.

Once the stretching begins, Barrett says, her progression goes from the ground up -- "because it's a chain" -- calves, hamstrings, adductors (short and long groin muscles), gluteus, hips, shoulders.

The idea of stretching before and after exercise has been taken for granted ever since the fitness boom of the last three decades began.

"Stretching" (Random House, $14.95), by high school physical education teacher Bob Anderson, is the feel-good bible of flexibility, having sold more than 3 million copies prior to before its 20th anniversary edition published in 2000. In it, Anderson maintains that stretching can help prevent injuries such as muscle strains as well as help prevent common injuries "such as shin splints or Achilles tendinitis from running, and sore shoulders or elbows from tennis."

Trouble is, sports medicine researchers lately have questioned whether stretching's value really extends that far.

"The literature can't quite pinpoint the injury prevention benefits related to pre-activity stretching," says Beth Kelley, a lecturer in the kinesiology department at San Francisco State University and director of the university's faculty and staff wellness program. "Even though we tell people we want them to do pre-activity stretching, there's not a lot of researched evidence for injury prevention." so why are we using woman in lead who advocates it?

An article published in the August 2000 issue of the Physician and Sportsmedicine, "Myths and Truths About Stretching," noted, "Heat, ice and warm-up all increase the effectiveness of stretching to increase range of motion, but only warm-up is likely to prevent injury." contradicts above -- is warm-up considered stretching?? SIMPLE BUT EFFECTIVE

For the average exerciser, S.F. State's Kelley likes to keep it simple.

"I divide stretching into static and dynamic," she says. "Beginners end up doing stupid things when they use momentum to stretch, so I begin with static stretches and move to dynamic stretches.

"The classic example of dynamic stretching I always use is Jerry Rice leaning over his shoulder to catch a football. He's doing it on the dead run, and it involves rotating his shoulders, arms and torso."

Among the dynamic stretching exercises she prescribes and teaches are:

-- Arm circles in a big range of motion. "It's actually the swim motion standing up," Kelley says, "where you alternate between forward and backward strokes, maintaining agility in the torso."

-- Torso twist. "This is done with the hands free, bum tucked under, and feet wider than hip width," Kelley says. "Don't move the knee. Keep the lower body stationary and concentrate on moving the torso -- almost like you're cut in half (one part motionless and the other moving)."

Kelley agrees that stretching's greatest value comes after exercise, not before. "Stretching during the cool-down increases the long-term benefits of exercise," she says. "Flexibility training is probably the only time when you have a chance to tell yourself to slow down and have a look at how the mechanics of the activity really work. It's good for stress management, too."

Kelley feels the cool-down is when people are more receptive to the benefits of stretching.

"I find beginning exercisers don't have that proprioception -- an awareness of where the body is in time or space. They'll feel they're doing it correctly.

But as an exercise professional, I'll see they're not doing it so well. I find flexibility training helps people develop proprioception," she says.

A person can do flexibility training up to seven times a week, Kelley says.

For the average person, two or three times a week is a good minimum. It could take the form of an extended cool-down where you stretch all the main muscle groups, focusing on the body parts you use in a particular activity.

"The length of time for each session or each exercise depends on how much you need," she adds. "It doesn't have to be time-intensive. It can be 10 or 15 minutes if you like. The average person will do a yoga or a tai chi tape. It's a nice way to relax."

Cal's Barrett wishes her athletes -- or anyone in the general population -- had the luxury of enough free time for two or three yoga classes a week. She's got a work-around strategy, though: specific exercises in a program called Active Isolated Stretching, developed by kinesiologist Aaron Mattes of Sarasota, Fla.

"We do a lot of AIS," Barrett says. "But AIS is -- and I hesitate to use the term because it almost sounds contradictory -- a more aggressive form of stretching. We target the hamstrings and the adductors to loosen the groin and hips."

Mattes' approach has gained credibility in the athletic community in recent years. His 35 years' experience with amateur, college and professional athletes has led to an approach he describes as "unwinding" the body by using an agonist-antagonist principle (e.g. hamstring-quadriceps). AIS helps lengthen a specific muscle for a specific activity by contracting the opposing muscle.

"It takes me minutes to do what you couldn't do in months," says Mattes, whose recent success stories include two members of the Montreal Expos, his son Troy, a starting pitcher, and third baseman Fernando Tatis. He says he'd like to work with retired slugger Mark McGwire, whose well-documented foot problems forced him out of baseball two years ago.

"By not holding a stretch for more than 1.5 to 2 seconds," Mattes says of his method, "you can increase blood flow and oxygen, major needs, to muscle tissue and fascia (deep tissue) simultaneously with no pain. It increases range of motion tremendously in a matter of seconds."

Mattes' euphoria over his program's effectiveness also comes from recent work with former Detroit Lions defensive lineman Mike Utley, whose spinal cord injury in a game 12 years ago left him paralyzed.

"In three days I had restored feeling all the way to his toes," Mattes says.

"I think I can get him walking."


-- Stretching Inc.:
Bob Anderson's cottage industry-turned-fitness giant: stretching literature, wall charts, posters, chart pads, videos, body tools and athletic wear.

-- President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports: Check out the council's monthly research digests, including one on flexibility training.


-- Active Isolated Stretching: Kinesiologist Aaron Mattes is working on a user-friendly section for this mostly promotional site, but cautions it's not easy to package AIS "like the 'Betty Crocker Cookbook.' "

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