Like so many other subjects in fitness, stretching has become a polarizing topic. There are those who believe every athlete should stretch before and after a workout or game, and those who believe otherwise. Most coaches and athletes subscribe to the former position. But do you really need to stretch? For most athletes, the answer should be yes, although for some the answer should be no.
Along the mobility spectrum there are two extremes. On one end is the muscle-bound bodybuilder who cannot touch his or her toes. On the other end is the gymnast who can turn his or her body into a pretzel. From a joint health and injury prevention perspective, most athletes want to be somewhere in the middle.
Knowing your sport and how much mobility it requires are very important. Baseball players and swimmers need more shoulder mobility than marathon runners.
Every joint needs a certain amount of mobility and stability for optimal function. If there is excessive mobility but not enough stability, the joint is susceptible to injury, because the structures that maintain its integrity can be compromised. Likewise, if there is not enough mobility at a joint, there is an increased risk of injury in athletes who push past their limits to achieve certain positions.
For those with limited mobility (which tends to be most athletes), stretching can increase range of motion and should be done regularly. However, people with extreme joint mobility should steer clear of aggressive stretching. These individuals are considered hypermobile. Hypermobility is characterized by joint laxity beyond normal ranges of motion. It can lead to an increased incidence of sprained ligaments, dislocations and joint pain. The more a hypermobile athlete stretches, the more at risk for injury he or she is due to a lack of stability at the joints.
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How to tell if you are hypermobile
The Beighton Score is commonly used to determine how much laxity an individual has. The five tests below are scored on a 9-point scale (the first four are scored on each side). The higher the score, the more joint laxity the person has and the less he or she should stretch. If you score 5 or above, you should do little or no stretching. Stabilization and strengthening should be your priority to avoid injury.
1. Elbow Hyperextension > 10 degrees
Extend both arms out to the side, fully extending your elbows with your palms up. If your elbow bends backwards, score 1 point. Test both sides.
2. Knee Hyperextension > 10 degrees
Reach down to touch your toes with your legs straight. If your knees hyperextend, score 1 point per side noted.
3. Index finger > 90 degrees
Gently bend your index finger back towards your forearm. If it bends past 90 degrees, score 1 point. Test both sides.
4. Thumb to forearm
Grab a thumb with your opposite hand. Gently bend your wrist and try to touch the thumb to the underside of your forearm. If the thumb touches, score 1 point. Test both sides.
5. Palms flat on floor
Reach down and try to place your hands flat on the floor with your legs straight. If you can do this, score 1 point.
Most athletes can benefit greatly from stretching. It's a great way for them to gain mobility to help prevent injury—and to get into positions that will help them succeed in their sport. However, some athletes already have too much mobility, and stretching could do more harm than good. Knowing which category you fall into is crucial to maintaining your long-term health.
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