Strength Beats Stretch

Most of us have been taught that stretching is a critical activity for keeping our muscles supple and strong. Professional dancers, ballerinas, gymnasts, figures skaters, yogis, are all great examples. Who doesn’t admire the taut leg extensions, splits, and head-to-nose stretches?

But guess what? While some amount of stretching can be good for muscles, research shows prolonged or “static” stretching — notably, holding a stretch for an extended period — can damage muscles, especially if those muscles are already strained and sore. Worse, regular stretching could even increase the risk of injuries.

In the hip, FAI (Femoroacetabular Impingement) Syndrome is the most common cause of pain and stiffness. FAI Syndrome, also known as “hip impingement”, is a motion- and position-dependent problem (see Warwick Agreement). Thus, with increasing degrees of hip motion (e.g. deep flexion, rotation; deep squats, lunges, leg presses), there is an increased chance of causing pain due to impingement. 

“Pushing through pain” is never the correct solution. “No pain, no gain” does not apply. The problem is that impingement is often associated with hip stiffness or tightness, for which many individuals instinctively and intuitively assume stretching is the solution. 

A better solution: Strengthen those muscles using a selection of special exercises to improve existing symptoms and even prevent future injury. As a leading sports medicine doctor at Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine, Joshua Harris, MD, and his team use a program called Strength Beats Stretch to help dancers and other athletes improve their performance and avoid getting injured. 

Pioneered by the Australian Ballet’s principal physiotherapist, Sue Mayes, Strength Beats Stretch has practical implications for athletes of all levels — not just dancers. Dr. Harris has also implemented a similar program in the Houston Ballet - an injury prevention program, focusing on strength, rather than flexibility, and showed an 82% injury risk reduction. 

Why strength beats stretch

Mayes developed the Strength Beats Stretch program to improve calf muscle endurance. Calves and ankles are common sites for dancer injuries, and Mayes felt that rather than elongating these muscles, building them up and improving strength could improve endurance — and reduce injuries at the same time.

The strengthening program has to do with how muscles respond when high physical demands are placed on them. Many athletic activities place high demands on muscles, especially during times of peak performance. The athlete’s performance depends on a combination of strength and elasticity of their muscles and tendons. 

When those tissues are routinely stretched to the limits of their capacity, it can weaken the fibers, decreasing strength and increasing the risk of injuries. You can think of it like a rubber band that’s repeatedly stretched beyond its normal limits. Eventually, the rubber band loses some of its elasticity, and when demands are placed on it again, it can snap. 

Clinical research

Mayes’s ideas about stretching and strengthening muscles aren’t just based on her observations. They’re backed up by clinical research, as well.

In a recent study of ballet dancers, Dr. Harris and his colleagues at Houston Methodist Orthopedics and Sports Medicine compared the effects of Strength Beats Stretch on the number and frequency of injuries. The researchers found that Strength Beats Stretch reduces the number of injuries and how often they occur. 

Specifically, dancers participating in the program had an 82% reduction in their injury rate, and the time between injuries was increased by 45%. Results of the study were published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

The Houston Ballet uses Strength Beats Stretch to keep its dancers in top form. Any athlete can use the exercises used in Strength Beats Stretch to improve strength and endurance. You can see videos of each of the exercises used in the team’s injury prevention program at this link.

Stay safe, play smart

Dr. Harris works with athletes of all levels, from students and pros to weekend warriors, helping each individual learn how to improve their performance, reduce the risk of injury, and get more enjoyment from their activity. If you have a sports injury or if you want to learn about ways to prevent injuries, Dr. Harris and his team can help. Call the office in Houston, Texas, or book an appointment online today.

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