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Muscles paper

Stretching discussion-paper

The right exercise for the right muscles

A certain amount of exercise is essential for a healthy life. Muscles that are not used regularly waste away quickly. Those which get regular and vigorous exercise gain in strength and bulk. These facts are obvious.

But it does not necesarily follow that big strong muscles are a sign of health or fitness. Body-builders and athletes are often more susceptible to injury and ill-health than those who do not own a pair of jogging shoes or never go near a gym.

Our aim should be to have the musculature we need to keep the body working freely and effectively. Scaffolders and others in physically demanding jobs need more muscles than office workers. But carrying round large muscles which we only use in the gym wastes the body's resources and can even weaken the immune system. 

We particularly need to have the right balance between the red and white fibres in our muscles. The red fibres provide endurance. This is not just a question of running marathons; it is also being able to sit and stand without becoming tired or developing pains in the back, neck and shoulders. White fibres, which are easily bulked up in the gym, provide strength for extremely short periods but require a judicious balance of red fibres for the tasks of everyday living.One of the paradoxes of exercise programmes is that the more determined we are about getting and keeping ourselves fit, the more likely it is that we will go about it the wrong way.

The attached paper has been written to help people make an informed decision on the exercise programme they need. To reach it, click here or in the Muscles paper link in the sidebar.

To stretch or not

Is stretching before exercise a good idea?  Looking round a gym or sports-ground it is obvious that a lot of people think it is.

The question came up when I was talking with one of my pupils about the benefits of allowing the muscles to lengthen.  AT teachers are always talking about that.  She asked me how this fitted with the idea of having a good hard stretch, especially of the hamstrings, before jogging or working-out.

It sent me scurrying back to a paper I remembered reading about this topic in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) some time ago.  As usual, it was longer ago than I thought; the date was August 2002.  The conclusion then was that vigorous stretching before exercise did not reduce the risk of muscle injury or muscle soreness. 

I recently wondered whether medical and sports science opinion had changed in the nine years since the paper was published.  The short answer is no.  A paper published in the Journal of Exercise Training in 2005 found that pre-exercise stretching had no effect in reducing the risk of injury.  A later paper published in 2007 found that pre-exercise stretches had no impact on subsequent muscle soreness.

There is also the risk of injury through excessive stretching.  Given the vigour with which so many indulge in their pre-exercise stretches they are clearly running the risk of damaging themselves. It happens among professionals too; we regularly read of football and rugby players injuring themselves in the warm-up before the game.

All this fits nicely into the Alexandrian view.  Stretching, in fact, tends to shorten and tighten the muscles and, if anything, reduces the level  of subsequent performance.  Alexander’s century-old ideas of stopping and allowing the muscles to quieten and lengthen before engaging in activity have truly stood the test of time.  Once we have allowed the muscles to lengthen, we can then gently warm-up to whatever level of activity we wish.

I have prepared a rather more technical version of this discussion, complete with scientific references, for anyone who wishes to look further into it.   To see the paper click here or on the Stretching discussion paper link in the sidebar.