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Flexibility - Stretching......the Truth
To Flex or Not to Flex, That is the Question!

David Landau


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Someone once said, "Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts." Someone else said "No, I cannot tell you what to do. No matter how hard I tried, I was never able to figure out just what the right thing to do was. But I can sure as Hell give you a long list of things not to do." These views can be held in accordance with the inordinate practice of flexibility training in the field of exercise.

Flexibility training is an exclusive adjunct to the world of exercise physiology and the "so called" athletic training/ conditioning experts. It is popularly and carefully considered the most important factor of physical fitness. Therefore it has become widely held by many so called experts. But alas, it is only an ingrained procedure that is hardwired into the suspect minds of its practitioners. This widespread scheme finds its way to anyone from the elite athletic consumers to the wannabe weekend warriors. I’m sorry to say that this "exercise" factor is however is really non measurable, and therefore it is in the least sense unreliable. As a result, it is of very little or no value whatsoever. Regardless of this being the case, flexibility is virtually accepted by all and is now presents itself as a specialized approach that is now gaining attention nationwide. Various forms of flexibility and stretching are seen in today’s variations of Yoga and Pilates.* (Multiple disciples of Pilates and literally hundreds of styles of Yoga exist to muddle this concept further.) So therefore the dream stays alive and multiplies. Here is the "new" vogue which among other things expresses a promise of an everlasting virtual fountain of youth. This easy made to order concept has now found its way conveniently into all of our fitness way of life. The fascination with this "art" can be easily seen in our culture. From the gracefulness of a ballet dancer to the power of a Jean Claude Van Damme, flexibility is very sought after by the masses. It is considered a rather sexy, powerful, and desirable physical prowess. But for all but a scant number of genetic exceptions, this inordinately emphasized idea is one plagued with plenty of false hopes, promises, and suspect opinions. Accepted from a long line of tradition, the grace of flexibility and stretching has again found its way to the forefront of the exercise industry.

Flexibility has been touted as the ideal preparation for athletics since the 1960s. Nowadays it is considered a valuable specialty and is hyped as nothing short of a cure all. Unfortunately, no one has really dared to violate and rise up to challenge the holy grail of stretching and flexibility. After all, it is just common awareness that the vast majority of "world class" trainers, physical therapists, chiropractors, and athletes apply it for the avoidance of injury and the proficiency of magic mobility? So it is that just about every trainer that exists from the YMCAs to Elite Olympic Training Centers and Professional Sports Teams practice and delivers some form of it.

The choices become innumerable. They range from passive, to active, static, and the ballistic (dangerous) varieties. Add Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, commonly known as PNF stretching (haphazardly applied can be potentially damaging to the joints connective tissue) and Active Isolated Approach to the mix, and you have nonsense with an added dash of impressive "technological jargon." A further spin on flexibility techniques has evolved somehow from the ever so evident extravagant "superiority of the Russian physical training systems." They have become involved in the mix with what is impressively coined loaded passive stretches, plyometric flexibility training, shutdown threshold isometrics (fancy name for PNF), and fascia stretching. The "scientific" supporters of these "comrade" systems are quick to point out that the other forms of stretching are poor modes and that their methodology would indeed transform a Woody Allen into a Bruce Lee. These modes are simply an offshoot of previous concepts well imbedded in American Exercise History. In extensive research of past Russian Physical Training Methodology (1966-1980) these theories are elusive and are seemingly contrived and have been conjured up more recently. The major factor involves the high commercial interest and demand of such "necessities." It all arises from the proliferation of the false notion that increased and speciously enhanced flexibility is something that is healthy and desirable. Yet mostly all in the realm of exercise physiology seem to agree on this, but never on a common ground. Is it stretch before or stretch after, or just do both, that is some question! It becomes a veritable, one week this, and then the next week that. As we see there is no agreement regardless of the fact there is no set standardized method or etiquette. Nonetheless it is still popular practice, especially here in the United States. Their physiological facts indicate that regardless of the many choices and these misconceptions promise you a better you. The findings in medical pathology however show a far different story.

A classic example of this occurs in the gross abnormalities that exist with the medical syndrome hypotonia or what is considered as hypotonic condition. This is an extremely poor pathological state for anyone to be in. It is a bodily limpness that is characterized by extremely extensive flexibility with a complete lack of muscle tone. It is caused by abnormal disease processes and is mostly associated in juvenile development. The body is completely flaccid, and therefore becomes a precarious and injurious state to be in. The physical characteristics are hyper mobility and hyper flexibility and this effects normal and simple functional living. This pathology alone is major cause for concern. But ignoring this medical data, these "know it all" stretching practitioners continue their false contention that being the more flexible (extensible) you are the more resistant you are for becoming injured. This is just plain poor information to say the very least, and the illusion does not stop here. Also included their false premise and pretence, are the ridiculous notions such as improved athletic performance, reduction of muscle soreness, improved coordination, enhanced muscle symmetry, alleviated rheumatic pain, accelerated healing, and magically increased blood flow. These are cleverly disguised claims that really hold no water, and are covered by the mere fact that other training and activity modalities associated may exist to hold the possible insurance of such claims. We will cover and expose this pretentiously and grossly misleading information later on in this chapter, including the largely ignored and legitimate data.

The simplistic acceptance of stretching and flexibility at face value and granting it credibility based on passed on conventional wisdom is a grave disservice. Yes, flexibility/stretching is as common place and traditional as hot dogs at the ballpark, and the seventh inning "stretch." Just maybe it came from everyone's obsessive desires to simply touch their toes. Again, their point is that with stretching, everyone practices some sort of it, so it has to be good, right? Factor this along with the allure and marketability of flexibility (especially for women) and it leads to literally millions of zealous followers, buts its path leads to something short of undesirable. The mere fact that it has gotten this much attention and is so widespread is not a surprise. Unfortunately due to so much undo positive exposure, this completely and vastly overrated concept of physical fitness can command quite a large dollar in the field of athletic and general exercise training. A quick look at the "profession," and it can be seen that these "specialists" charge as much as $160.00 per session and with professional athletes, this figure is at least $250.00 or even higher. The specialists are clever as they do target one of the largest industries in sports, that being the golf industry. Anyone from the golf novice to elite name professional will heed to the need for more flexibility, but alas, the premise behind this is just a pipe dream. But it has been recently reported that one high ranking professional golf fell prey to this belief and it almost cost him his career. It was a result of following some lavish flexibility routine it made him lose his swing and produced morbid weakness. He was lucky enough to find someone who knew the value of progressive strength training and told him to quit weakening himself while he still had his sanity. It is again the clever provokers of concepts that are rather believable and since it is deep-seated in the scene there are many to jump on this bandwagon and take your money. But the value of better golf proficiency is well hidden in the repeat practice as something as simple as the golf swing itself, taught albeit a qualified golf professional at best. A golf swing is an exact athletic skill unto itself and as someone once said, "practice makes perfect as long as the practice is perfect." But remember some of these practitioners/preachers may indeed have good intentions and they truly believe that their program will help you.

As someone once said, "the road to hell is certainly paved with good intentions." On the other hand the promotion of their false beliefs should be heavily censored. The need for such endeavors is questionable at best, and unfortunately there is again, a preposterous amount of emphasis placed upon this assumed requirement. The bottom line is that stretching is a pathetically unwarranted and baseless "need," in most case scenarios and may be of value only in clinical and medically grounded situations period. In order to critically examine stretching and flexibility, we must look into its valid definitions, premises, and origins.

Flexibility comes from the Latin origin flexibilis, which means to bend. But even when we reduce it to its word form flex, it still means we need to bend. In this case we are referring to around the joint axis of the body. The paradox arises when flexibility really should be referred to as extensibility; which means the ability of a muscle fiber to stretch or to passively increase in length. We see more of this the world of stretching and flexibility when their clever concepts and jargon can be taken a bit too far. In practice, it is the often glamorous term elongation of muscles which in practice ends up as extreme hyper extensibility. This aspect of flexibility alone is borderline dangerous or at least counterproductive. Once a muscle is moderately "stretched," the connective tissue takes over and with the repetition of hyper extensional forces, this leads to joint instability. In exercise physiology trying to change genetically predetermined internal structural integrity is not desirable to approach. This becomes the bend, bend, bend, then break rule. It also includes what is practiced in physical therapy when its application suggests improved athleticism and functionality.* Not only are the origins of the word and its sub concepts cause for alarm, buts its history shows us a fascinating journey that is documented well beyond a century and a half ago. The practices were far more technical and complex than today's suspect methodology, while it was much more clearly understood in its definitions and roles.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, there were many available systems of physical training. Flexibility was a small integration of these systems and was often referred to as flexibleness and suppleness. This reference occurred in feminine systems of training dating as far back as Catherine Beecher's Physiology of Calisthenics Training in the 1850s. *SHOW BEECHER’S ORIGINAL PICTURES Many systems followed suit where it was fashionable to be slim and supple including the ever popular Delsartean System.* that emphasized flexibility and poise in theatre. These systems of physical training were well before the advent of Pilates, for Mr. Joseph Pilates was yet to be born. The Pilates Philosophy is predicated on this lone concept of flexibility. Another distinction of flexibility/stretching and its origins seems to come from the Eastern philosophical Japanese or Hindu Yogi Systems that were of course practiced in Japan and India. But there were so many systems of training to choose from around this period of time. Most of these Systems proclaimed that it was appropriate to stretch at the distal end of extensional and rotational movements, which is truly sufficient. In the later part of the nineteenth century many systems and exercises were done without apparatus, where postural exercise was done in favor of stretching exercises, including many for the developmental physical education for children in schools. These systems moreover included muscular free hand exercise, so any claims made for stretching, was actuated by any of these meaningful muscular movements throughout normal functional ranges. The advancement was then made to more complex apparatus, including variable resistance machines. (See Zander*) It was well understood here that the role of flexibility/extensibility was limited to a normal/functional range of bodily motion. This tactical approach encompassed the appropriate strengthening of a muscle throughout its comfortable and normal range of action. There were also many exercises that had meaningful implements as weight loads, such as dumbbells, wands, barbells, Indian clubs, and even in the lifting of anvils. But for the purpose of understanding again, there was only an emphasis placed upon completing the exercise movements throughout a comfortable range of normal motion. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that this was well understood over a century ago. Flexibility or what was known as suppleness then appeared on the scene around World War 2 as a staple of physical fitness.

Physical educators saw the effects of immobility and muscular stagnancy of the body during the overnight hours of sleep. Upon wakening, yawning was first and then it was followed by a system of scientific stretching in bed. This became popular physical fitness lore. It caught on like wild fire to morning stretch classes in the school systems and to the mainstream Golden Triangle YMCAs. It was not long after this that manufacturers patented bizarre stretching tables, that were not to dissimilar to 15th century torture devices. One in which, was manufactured in Cleveland, Ohio called the Pandiculator*, which draws an ironic parallel to today’s modern stretching tables. Today’s perpetrators should take note, as the claims were nothing short of outrageous.* There were also serious attempts at suggested charted degrees of acceptable joint movement that were deemed healthy and satisfactory. Undeniably, commercialized promotion was going to rear its ugly head on a much larger scale, it came harmlessly in the form of a popular Minute Gym Exerciser for the home. Stretch to Health* with the stars with Richard Kline*, Hollywood’s foremost Health Authority. The glamorous Stretch to Health Exerciser was the secret of the stars. Kline was the "personal trainer" of the stars. Appointed as physical director at Paramount Studios in 1927, Richard invented an apparatus that suggested an ironic solution for the maladies that were caused by the old traditional methods of physical fitness. This multi functional exerciser claimed the same results as the dysfunctional training methods of today. (See Dysfunctional Training Chapter) In an ironic twist however, he suggested this exerciser would reduce the strain of excessive heart rate exhilaration. In other words the notion of Cardio was pooh-poohed and our physical culture director suggested indeed that the slowing of the heart rate was a scientific and far more productive way for bodily improvement and health. Some of these myths survived, some died, but a few moved on to the modern era. Some of these concepts are still waiting their turn to be dug up and resurrected again. Nonetheless, to the dismay of Mr. Kline the haphazard calisthenics systems were called upon as a result of their use in the two previous world wars. These were the preparatory conditioning/warm up drills that were used during which. This approach became popular in the 1950s through the 1960s. These ballistic/injurious preparations were chosen to be "warm up" drills prior to athletic competition.

Again, these army drills had been popular and the athletic coaches accepted them with no scrutiny. It was obvious do the explosive nature of these movements that injuries did occur and they were only adding "fuel to the fire." Somehow - somewhere, stretching exercises replaced them outright, even though it was well understood by the experts that these procedures lacked objective evidence of their "effectiveness." Never the less the obsession turned towards flexibility. Without any extensive observation or investigation the same issues existed with the diverse factors of joint pathology, structural differences, connective tissue inextensibility, and articular dehydration caused by aging. Further more, there could not be an ideal application because of these vast differences. No true scientific protocol could be applied for individualized prescribed mobility ranges. It made no difference to all but a few. It soon became a worthless trade off, and with its "superiority," stretching eventually won out. In a landmark study, it was reported by the American College of Sports Medicine* in the late 1960s that players of whom were the most "flexible" players on the New York Jets football team were most likely to suffer ligament injuries requiring surgery and their conclusion was that loose joints were far more prone to injury. That being a fact, the damage was undeniably brought on by these "brilliant" stretching drills. Ignoring this study, professional sports teams of the elite were supposedly miraculously becoming injury free from the "new phenomena."

Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team’s defensive line were reduced to being trained to do ballet splits in their conditioning drills. It was as valuable in turn for the Ballet Dancers to practice blocking and tackling skills. Sure! But curiously and coincidentally their assistant coach was a former gymnast and had previously coached gymnastics for 18 years prior. However, their "success" in spite of it all, provided reason for others to follow suit. The NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL amongst many, then adopted these practices indiscriminately. In 1980, Bob Anderson authored a book a stretching that may have single handedly opened up the food gates for flexibility training. In retrospect, Mr. Anderson did not emphasize the extreme ranges of joint motions that are evident in athletic training today; his approach on the contrary was extremely passive. He understood the athlete’s superior skill acquisition, strength advantages (neurological efficiency), and bodily proportions and that passive stretching would be icing on the cake and would not be active enough to destroy the already present mix. In spite of this, the modern era had some how spawned several separate and distinct stretching protocols without any valid investigation or scrutiny.

The present state of affairs has not changed, but the data is now emerging to challenge the nonsense. To date very little research has proved any value of indicating that stretching prior to athletics to make athletes any less injury prone. Unfortunately they can make their "scientific" literature back up any invalid point they make. In contrary and unbiased studies, it was reported from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (notice the validity of western medicine, minus athletic mentality), one researcher investigated studies over the last 60 years, with no value to enhanced stretching and flexibility for athletes and for any related such reason. 361 scientific articles since 1946 were reviewed and the conclusions were that if any effect was apparent, it would be more injurious rather than what is understood as the holy grail of so called injury preparatory stretching. In another study that was done by researchers at the University of Hawaii interviewed 1500 runners on whether they stretched prior to their training and the conclusions were that if there was any incidence of injury it weighed on the side that those that did preparatory stretching. Many have opted to throw out their previously ingrained routines of contortions, and as a result have become more pain and injury free, so go figure. So we can conclude from this that stretching for elite athletes is just bad theory, regardless of what one’s opinion is or even what your background is.

Better Late Than Never?.

In a statement that is undeniable where one Dr. Stanley Plagenhoef concluded, "If the joints of an athlete or anyone are surrounded and supported by stronger muscles, then the chance of any trauma is reduced. If a joint in question becomes more flexible but without a corresponding increase in muscular strength, injury probability is increased." Adding to this understanding is that it would be regardless of when such stretching may occur, before or after any activity. Furthermore the number of muscle fibers that are affected by stretching is limited to one plane of movement as opposed to activities and sports that require an infinite number of dimensions of mobility. A complete thorough understanding of this situation in plain English could be summed up by Arthur Jones. "Injuries are produced by force….a force that exceeds the structural integrity of the body. When a force is encountered that exceeds the breaking strength of the body, than an injury literally must be produced. Only two factors are involved… 1) the force that produces the injury… and 2) the strength of the body that permits the injury. Obviously, injuries can be avoided by either of two methods; by lowering the force… or by increasing the strength of the body." Jones understood the underlying factors involved, and there is nothing complicated about these conclusions, they are plain and simple, but correct. Flexibility and stretching training as applied to injury prevention, athletic preparation, conditioning, and whatever the claims regardless simply does not pan out. Their evidence lacks significant proof. We are therefore left with a tradition that carries no weight. Don’t be confused with the fleeting aspect of the sports that require greater degrees of mobility such as Martial Arts and Gymnastics. The all important issue is the practice within the harmony of the exact skills involved. Do not be misled by the misconceptions held in the opposing contentions to the previous statement. Degrees of success in these sports are due primarily to inherited characteristics of superior inborn mobility and prowess, in other words you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. So no amount of flexibility training will change the undeniable facts. So, here we are without exception being exposed to an invalid factor of physical training. Does the buck stop here? No, the evolution of non truths in physical training/fitness does not end here as we will see they are we running away from danger?

© 2010 David Landau