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From Fitness Experts, Here's the Truth About Stretching

Exercise* Forget what was learned in high school gym class. Some of those methods (remember butterflies and toe touches?) were harmful.


Thirty-three years ago, at Edison High in Alexandria, Va., we started each period of physical education with a warm-up. To my mind, it was a waste of time: After the tedium of algebra class (Part 1, and I had to take it twice), I wanted to jump right into the volleyball game. But there was a tincture of virtue wafting over the gym: Stretching was good for you, we were told. And so we did it.

Dressed in our high-top Chuck Taylors and bright red cotton sweats, we--boys only, the girls were in the "girls' gym"--were arranged in rows across the basketball floor. We did deep knee bends, push-ups and jumping jacks, then sat on the floor doing "butterflies" (feet crossed at the ankles and the knees pushed to the floor) and hurdler stretches.

Thusly stretched, we were permitted to partake of the game of the day.

Flash forward from 1969 to 2002. I'm at rugby practice, standing in a wide circle of players. The stretchmeister has us bend at the waist, touching our toes with quick repetitive motions, bouncing at the hips for a full 30 seconds. We do the same with our legs crossed as we stand, and then we drop to the field for butterflies and hurdler stretches.

For more than 30 years now, I've done these same stretches. And only now I am learning that, like whole milk, something I once thought was good for me is not.

"It's not what you learned was wrong," says Judith C. Young, executive director of the National Assn. for Sport and Physical Education, or NASPE, in Reston, Va., trying to put a forgiving spin on the bad news. "It's just out of date."

What's changed over the past 30 years is physiologists' understanding of the human body and what the common forms of stretching and calisthenics have been doing to it. Many of the standards--sit-ups, toe touches, knee bends, hurdler's stretch and more--have been modified or replaced to reduce the stress they place on vulnerable joints and muscles.

"As the fields of exercise physiology and biomechanics have matured, we've become much more knowledgeable in the potential risks associated with certain exercises," says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise in San Diego. "Years ago, you didn't have MRI techniques, electromyographic studies and ways to measure impact forces. All those advances have allowed us to become more knowledgeable about stresses and loads to various joints."

But plenty of volunteer coaches and amateur athletes aren't getting the message. They're still inculcating bad habits--and old-school ways.

Even some big guns remain defiant.

"If you never take your knees past 90 degrees, you'll have the stiffest knees you've ever seen," says Bob Anderson, a Colorado fitness lecturer and mountain biker. Anderson, with his wife, Jean, wrote the seminal book "Stretching" (Shelter Publications, 1975), translated into 24 languages and now in its 20th edition. "Head circles? Yeah, I guess it compresses [the cervical spine], but sitting [down] all day compresses circulation to your legs. I think we should eliminate sitting."

His response notwithstanding, we figured it's time to isolate some commonly misperformed stretches and calisthenics and show the perpetrators what they're doing wrong.

For the job, we enlisted Young and Chris Brophy, NASPE's program administrator for research and professional development and a former fitness instructor. We also sought advice from Bryant.


* Old School: You started flat on your back, legs straight or bent in front of you, hands behind your head; you struggled to sit up, and perhaps even continued to bend your head toward your knees. You repeated this until your stomach gave out.

* New School: "A full sit-up, with the hands pulling from behind the head, tends to put stress on the cervical region of the spine," Bryant says. "And people tend to rock up, tilting the pelvis forward and putting stress on the lumbar spine."

Besides, the abdominal muscle--the object of desire in this drill--is a short one; it doesn't require that much range of motion. Which is why everyone at the gym these days does "ab crunches."

Abdominal crunches start like bent-knee sit-ups, with your hands at your sides or lightly at the sides of your head, but you come only a small distance off the floor, perhaps 30 degrees, says Brophy. A lot of people at the gym do these rapidly, as if doing as many repetitions in the shortest time is beneficial. It isn't, and the use of momentum to complete the crunch robs you of the exercise's value. Hold each crunch for 11/2 to two seconds for maximum benefit.

Toe Touches

* Old School: To stretch your back muscles and hamstrings, you stood, feet together with knees straight, and then bent at the waist, attempting to touch your toes--or the floor--with your fingers.

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