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Measured Approach to Stretching Helps Young Athletes

Posted Oct 31, 2017

Vikings players are led through a stretching routine by strength and conditioning coaches before each practice and games.

Head Strength and Conditioning Coach Mark Uyeyama calls out instructions to formations of players that are lined up across the field. Team captains are at the front of the formation, facing teammates to loosen their muscles. The players are fine-tuned athletes who have learned proper techniques.

The time commitment and attention to detail placed on stretching shows its importance to football players.

Stretching is often considered a gentle and safe activity and a good warmup to help prevent injuries, but science in the past decade has shown stretching can be harmful if overdone.

Overstretching can cause injuries, especially in kids and teens. Since they have open growth plates, which often are weaker areas that give, stretching can lead to bone injuries instead of muscle strains.

For kids and teens, three key principles stand out: 

1. Since bones can grow faster than muscles, it’s important to avoid intense stretching or stretching for long periods of time.

2. Uncontrolled hypermobility could lead to permanent damage of joints, ligaments and blood vessels. Youth should be taught how to protect joints while stretching rather than pushing into loose ligaments.

3. Kids don’t have the hormonal development for strength training in the same way adults do. They rely on their nervous system to control their joints. However, holding prolonged stretches can impair nervous system control for up to one hour.

So, what’s proper stretching for kids? Two types of stretching, often done by pro athletes, apply:

Dynamic stretching

With dynamic stretching, a person moves through progressively larger ranges of motion, faster speeds and more complex patterns during a warmup routine. This should be done before a sports activity or performance.

Dynamic stretches include

• Hamstring kicks

• Inch worm

• Quad stretches

• Skips

Static stretching

In static stretching, a person holds a stretch for a longer period of time. Static stretching can decrease muscle performance for up to an hour, so it should be saved for after a sports activity or performance. For improvements with flexibility, do four sets of 30-second holds on key stretches.

Static stretches and that part of the body they benefit include:

• Downward dog: Shoulders, lower back, hamstrings, calves

• Modified hero: Hip flexors, quads, shoulders

• Figure 4: Glutes, lower back

• Child’s pose: Lower back, ankles

• Roller arch: Upper back, chest, shoulders

Considerations 

Stretching with a partner could be considered a type of static stretching, but it isn’t recommended for kids as they usually can’t detect if they’re stretching a partner too much or too fast, which could lead to an injury.

Kids can benefit from dynamic stretching within their warmup, as well as post-activity static stretching to improve flexibility, but special considerations such as growth spurts, open growth plates and control of hypermobility should be taken into account to help minimize the injury risk.