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When less is more: the case for shorter stretching durations.

Stretching is a critical component of every warm-up routine that promotes flexibility and develops the kind of range of movement that produces superior performance, athleticism, and a safeguard against injury.


Most coaches have their own routine with which to make their players feel comfortable--a routine usually based on a previous one that the coach has used or seen in the past. The most successful routines are done quickly and have a high compliance. Why "quickly"? In order to allow more time for coaching and maintaining the athletes' interest.

There is also static stretching, which occurs when the muscle is placed in a maximal position of stretch and held for an extended period of time.

Note: This definition does not mention the number of times to do each stretch. These questions are difficult to answer because there are many different theories on how duration and repetitions affect flexibility.

Some of the literature has shown that the duration of stretch does not matter as long as it is over six seconds.

Six seconds is used because, according to the neurophysiology of the muscle, it takes at least six seconds for the Golgi tendon organ to send impulses that trigger the muscle to relax and become receptive to the stretch.

When static stretches are held for over six seconds, this is the type of reflex that is initiated. Anything less than six seconds, such as a ballistic stretch, does not incorporate the Golgi tendon organ, but, rather, the stretch reflex.

There are still some people who will argue that the body during competition is never placed in a certain position for more than a couple seconds, much less for an entire six seconds.


These people believe that if shorter stretching durations (approximately three seconds, are used to initiate the Golgi tendon organ), it would be more comparable to what the muscles experience during actual activity.

A study at Missouri State University examined how stretching duration of hamstring flexibility affected the overall range of motion at the knee joint.

The study involved 28 college-aged participants from Missouri State University. Volunteers were eliminated based on an exclusionary questionnaire regarding previous hamstring injury, low back pain, knee injury, and any current stretching routine.

The 28 participants were randomly divided into two groups (a 30-second group and a three second group) and asked to report to supervised stretching sessions five days a week for two weeks. The participants were allowed to miss one session before being disqualified.

Baseline knee range of motion measurements were taken prior to the first stretching session by having the participant sit up straight on the end of the table with a towel roll placed under his distal thigh.

When the examiner was ready, the participant would pull his toes back and extend the knee as far as he could without creating an uncomfortable feeling.

When the patient felt he could extend his knee no farther, the examiner would use a goniometer to measure the angle of the knee joint in this position. These goniometric measurements were also taken after the fifth and final stretching session.

After the initial baseline measurements were taken, the two groups were supervised while they stretched. The participants lay on their back and pulled their thigh to the chest until they could grasp it behind the knee. They then straightened their knee until tension was felt in the hamstrings, but was not painful.

The 30-second group would hold each stretch for 30 seconds and then rest for 30 seconds, until three stretches totaling 90 seconds of stretching and ninety seconds of rest had been performed. The total time spent stretching and resting on one leg totaled one 180 seconds.

The three-second group would hold each stretch for three seconds and then rest for three seconds, until 15 stretches totaling 45 seconds of stretching and 45 seconds of rest had been performed. The total time spent stretching and resting on one leg totaled 90 seconds.

Out of the 28 participants that began the study, one did not complete the study and two others were disqualified. The remaining 28 participants exhibited a significant overall improvement in active knee range of motion when the goniometric measurements were taken after the fifth and final sessions.

As expected, there was not a significant difference in the amount of active knee extension between the 30 and three-second groups, as shown in the accompanying graph. Both groups experienced increases in active knee extension, but the three-second group showed slightly higher increases in overall range of motion.

The results of this study show that stretching duration does not necessarily have to be six seconds or longer in duration. The three-second group showed the same, if not better, improvement in overall range of motion as the 30-second group.


Although there was no significant difference in overall range of motion between the two groups, the study did show that not only does stretching duration not matter, but that its overall stretching time is not necessarily as important as once believed.

Everybody has his or her own beliefs on frequency and duration of stretching. But, as some studies have shown, there is not a right or wrong answer.

Using different durations and repetitions should be based on the population using the protocol. There are a couple of reasons why using shorter durations may be better when working with younger athletes.

The first reason is the most obvious. The less time you spend stretching, the more time you have to do other things at practice. Also, using shorter stretching durations and stretching techniques that are easy to perform will also promote compliance.

This is because the athletes will better understand the stretch that is being performed and are more likely to hold a stretch for three seconds at a time, rather than for longer time periods.

Although these are good reasons to use a shorter stretching duration, it has been shown that holding a stretch for any period of time can increase overall range of motion (10).

Most importantly, athletes should try to stretch on a regular basis, which is most commonly before and after every practice. By doing this habitually, the athletes have improved their range of motion, and this will help prevent injuries and enhance performance.


* Warm-up period: 5 minutes.

* Standing Quad stretch: 5 sec hold x 3 on each leg.

* Calf stretch: 5 sec hold x 3 on each leg.

* Figure 4 hamstring stretch: 5 sec hold x 3 on each leg.

* Seated Butterfly stretch: 5 sec hold x 3.

* Double knee to chest: 5 sec hold x 3.

* Single knee to chest: 5 sec hold x 3 on each leg.

* Pretzel stretch (piriformis): 5 sec hold x 3 on each leg.

* Cross over stretch (low back): 5 sec hold x 3 on each side.

* Arm cross body: 5 sec hold x 3 on each arm.

* Overhead tricep stretch: 5 sec hold x 3 on each arm.

* Standing pec stretch: 5 sec hold x 3 on each arm.

* 3-way neck stretching (side-side-forward): 5 sec hold x 3 each direction.

By Gerald Masterson (Ph.D.) and AT's Jesse Herrington, Jason Muchow, and Claire Powell, Missouri State University Springfield, MO
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Article Details
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Author:Masterson, Gerald; Herrington, Jesse; Muchow, Jason; Powell, Claire
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2008
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