By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 19 June 2009)
There are a number of stretches that carry a relatively high risk of injury for those who lack flexibility or have suffered prior injuries.
Some people can manage almost any stretch without experiencing any problems, whereas others, particularly those with certain medical conditions or chronic neck, back, or knee problems, may wish to avoid the following techniques.
Back bends (such as the yoga bridge) can pinch nerve fibers, jam spinal joints together, and squeeze spinal disks. Those with previous spine or neck injuries should consult a medical practitioner before attempting back bends, and anyone trying these techniques for the first time should do so under the supervision of a qualified instructor.
Full Neck Rotations
Rolling the neck through its full range of motion can injure the cervical disks. Those performing this neck stretch should stick to semi-circles at the front and never force the exercise to the point of pain.
According to the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, the correct technique is to “slowly roll [the neck] in a circle by taking your right ear to your right shoulder, dropping the chin to the chest, taking the left ear to the left shoulder and returning the head to center.” While performing this exercise, keep the shoulders down – don’t let them move up toward the ears.
For this technique, the stretcher sits on her heels and leans backward until her back reaches the floor to stretch the quadriceps. This stretch may also be performed with one leg folded under and the other straight in front.
The hurdler’s technique may overstretch or crush tissues and pinch nerves. In particular, it puts severe strain on the knees, so it is a bad technique for those with existing knee problems.
Inverted (Upside-Down) Stretches
Inverted stretches include any technique where the stretcher hangs upside down. Often used by body builders and in the treatment of back pain, these stretches require special frames or boots.
In addition to potentially exacerbating existing back problems when not overseen by a medical practitioner, inverted stretches increase blood pressure and intraocular (eye) pressure. Hanging upside down for a long time can even rupture blood vessels.
Those with glaucoma or high blood pressure should avoid inverted stretches altogether, and others should consult a doctor before engaging in such techniques.
For this technique, the stretcher keeps his legs straight and bends to touch his toes. Straight-legged toe touches can hyperextend the knees, as well as putting pressure on lower lumbar vertebrae.
Rapidly and forcefully twisting the torso can cause damage to ligaments or tissues. The risk is even higher when holding weights.
Torso twists are safe for most people if undertaken in a slow, controlled manner, but attempts to force the body past its natural range of motion may cause injury to the lower back and knees (knees should be flexed rather than locked into place while performing this stretch).
In one variant of the yoga plough, the stretcher lies on her back and sweeps her legs over her head, bringing her knees down beside her ears on either side. This stretch strains the lower back, putting excessive pressure on the spinal discs, as well as compressing the heart and lungs.
Even the gentler version of the plough in which the legs are swept over the head and positioned in a straight diagonal line above the face with toes touching the floor may be problematic for some people. Those who suffer from back or neck problems or high blood pressure should consult a medical practitioner before engaging in this pose.
Ballistic stretching involves bouncy movements designed to push a body part beyond its natural range of motion. Some experienced athletes and dancers use these techniques, but those without sufficient experience, control, and flexibility may significantly increase their risk of injury if they attempt them.
Static Stretching Before a Workout
Static stretching involves holding body parts in stretch positions for a set length of time. Contrary to popular belief, static stretching before a workout is unlikely to prevent injury and may even increase the risk of injury, as well as having a negative effect on athletic performance for sports requiring physical strength or sudden, explosive movements. Muscle power may be diminished for up to 30 minutes after static stretching.
Static stretching is a good way to improve flexibility and induce relaxation, but it should be done at the end of a workout or sports practice when the muscles are warm. Dynamic stretching, which uses movements such as controlled arm swings or rotations, leg swings, and lunges, is a better choice for the beginning of a workout, though at least 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity should be performed as a warm-up before engaging in any sort of stretching.
- Andersen, J. (2005). “Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk.” Journal of Athletic Training, 40(3), 218-220.
- Appleton, B. (1998). “ Stretching and Flexibility.”.
- Leyland, T., B.Ed., M.Sc. (2007). “Chapter 6: Flexibility” in Exercise: Health and Performance.
- Nelson, A.; Kokkonen, J.; & Arnalll, D. (2005). “Acute Muscle Stretching Inhibits Muscle Strength Endurance Performance.” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(2), 338-343.
- Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma. (2007). “Upper Extremity and Neck Flexibility Program Exercises.” NISMAT.org.
- Reynolds, G. (31 October 2008). “Stretching: The Truth.” The New York Times. NYTimes.com.