The cover story in this month's leading professional fitness journal was on stretching, the exercise component whose time has come. The article described several types of stretching exercises and presented sample programs for improving joint flexibility. However, the proposed stretching protocols required about an hour to perform.
While I do not question the effectiveness of such programs, in my experience few people have time for sixty minutes of stretching exercise. In fact, most of our fitness center participants spend about 30 minutes doing strength training (15 Nautilus machines) and about 30 minutes doing endurance exercise (treadmill, cycle, stepper, cross-trainer, etc.), leaving little time in a typical one-hour workout for stretching.
Our latest research has demonstrated the benefits of including stretching in the overall exercise program, but our participants attained excellent results from relatively brief stretching sessions. Consider the following findings from two of our studies on stretching exercise.
Our first study in this area was conducted with 77 golfers (average age 57 years) who did a standard strength training program (13 Nautilus exercises). Fifty-two golfers did strength training only, and 25 golfers did a combination of strength training and stretching exercise. The stretching protocol consisted of six exercises performed on a StretchMate apparatus (a platform and steel frame threaded with elastic cable and resembling a large spiderweb). Each stretch was held for 10 seconds, with most stretches performed on both sides of the body, and the total time requirement was about three minutes.
Both groups of golfers made impressive improvements in body composition, adding about four pounds of muscle and losing about four pounds of fat over the eight-week training period. However, the golfers who performed stretching exercises increased their joint flexibility significantly more than the golfers who did only strength training. More important to the golfers, those who did strength training and stretching increased their club head speed twice as much as those who did only strength training (5.2 mph vs. 2.6 mph).
Club head speed basically determines driving power, with each mile per hour increase equivalent to about 2.3 yards more driving distance. The combination of strength training and stretching exercise produced the greatest improvement in club head speed, and the total workout time was less than 30 minutes.
Our second study on stretching exercise involved 76 participants from our fitness classes. The small group fitness classes run hourly throughout the day in our research center (six members with two instructors). Each class consists of 12 Nautilus exercises and about 20 to 25 minutes of aerobic activity (treadmill or cycle).
About half of the research participants performed the standard training protocol, whereas the other half added stretching exercises to the workout. To save time and to make the stretches specific to the strength training, we paired every Nautilus exercise with an appropriate stretch for the same muscle group. Each stretch was held for 20 seconds, and most were done right on the Nautilus machines.
For example, the Nautilus leg extension exercise for the quadriceps muscles was followed by the standing quadriceps stretch. Likewise, the Nautilus leg curl exercise for the hamstrings muscles was followed by the seated hamstrings stretch. This pairing procedure made productive use of the rest time between machines, using 20 seconds for single stretches and 40 seconds for stretches performed on both sides of the body. Although the total time requirement for the stretches was about six minutes, the actual duration of the workout was about the same due to the strategic placement of the stretching exercises between the Nautilus exercises.
The results of this 10-week study were both anticipated and surprising. We expected the group that included stretching exercises to make greater gains in joint flexibility, and indeed they did. Their hamstrings flexibility increased 2.4 inches compared to a 1.4-inch improvement in the group that did not stretch.
However, we also found that the stretching group gained almost 20 percent more muscle strength than their non-stretching counterparts. Specifically, the participants who paired Nautilus and stretching exercises increased their hamstrings strength by 19.5 pounds, whereas the participants who did not stretch increased their hamstrings strength by only 16.4 pounds.
So this study also showed superior results by combining strength training and stretching exercises. It would therefore seem that muscle strength, joint flexibility, movement speed, and performance power can all benefit from a relatively basic and brief exercise program that includes appropriate strengthening and stretching components.
Just as our previous research demonstrated that one set of each strength exercise is as productive as two or three sets, these studies clearly indicate that a few minutes of stretching exercise are sufficient for significantly improving joint flexibility. In fact, the three-minute stretching sessions performed by the golfers produced a 24-percent average increase in their hip and shoulder flexibility.
This spring, we will further study the benefits of combined strength and stretching exercise in our research classes. For more information about our research results and upcoming programs, I invite you to participate in our slide show orientation on Friday, March 26th, 6:00 p.m., at the South Shore YMCA. Please call Susan Ramsden at (617) 479-8500, x132 if you would like to attend.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA, and author of several books on fitness, including Building Strength and Stamina, and Strength Training Past 50.