The Great Stretching Debate

 

Our dance classes typically begin with some warming-up movement followed by gentle stretching of the muscles used in dancing. Inventive teachers warm us up in many ways, exploring all the variations on marching round the room, or practising dance patterns with a walking or running step. Stretches are done after the warm-up has increased the blood flow to the muscles; they are held for about 30 seconds and avoid any bouncing movements which might damage the muscles.

Two benefits have been thought to result from stretching during warm-up and also during a cool-down period at the end of class: a reduced risk of injury and reduced muscle spasm and soreness after the class. However, the Strathspey internet list has recently carried reports of medical studies questioning whether these benefits actually occur.

These negative findings seem to be strongest in relation to muscle soreness, with a review article in the British Medical Journal citing five studies which show that “stretching before or after exercising has no effect on delayed onset muscle soreness.” Two further studies are said to suggest that “muscle stretching before exercising does not produce meaningful reduction in the risk of injury.” The evidence does not absolutely disprove the protective effects of stretching on muscles, but neither does it confirm them.

However, it seems that we should not be too hasty in applying these findings to our own practice in dance classes. During the discussion on Strathspey, Keith Eric Grant (an Scottish country dance instructor who is also a massage therapist) pointed out that the studies reviewed in the BMJ were all carried out on healthy young adults, including students and army recruits. This population, as he writes, is “fairly elastic and less likely to show the effects of cumulative minor injuries and posture dysfunctions. Stretching will not be much of a boon to those who are sufficiently flexible for the range of motion they will need to engage in customary activities.” For the rest of us, of course, stretching may still improve flexibility.

Grant’s comments also include recommendations on the best way to avoid muscle soreness after exercise. This soreness, he claims, occurs when people exceed their level of conditioning. It results “from micro-damage to the muscle fibres and a subsequent inflammatory response. Conditioning and a gradual build-up of exercise helps, but stretching does not. Prior to exercising, warming up of tissues through gentle movement and slow extension of the movements to full customary range is helpful. This extension of movement could be thought of as gentle stretching.”

Aside from the question of how far one can stretch the definition of stretching, we should be clear that stretching and warming up are not the same thing. In fact, one study involving Australian army recruits had all 1,538 subjects do active warm-up exercises, but only half do stretching as well. So the findings are only applicable to the benefits of stretching; the benefits of warming up are not in question. And stretching can still help us by heightening our awareness of our bodies and alerting us to any potential trouble spot if we feel a twinge of discomfort. The RSCDS is apparently working on a warm-up booklet, and we await it with interest.

Rosemary Coupe
Editor, The White Cockade Rosemary Coupe