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One thing I've seen practiced before are stretches involving a partner, particularly for the legs. I've seen mixed reviews of this practice in a variety of different locations, and wondered if someone had some good experience or research on whether they were beneficial, dangerous, harmful (or perhaps counterproductive), beneficial only in selective situations, or beneficial and dangerous (in a way that can be mitigated through proper technique).

I've seen this particularly with respect to legs before doing kicks in arts that emphasis high kicks, generally working off of a wall with a partner facilitating the leg stretch.

For the purpose of this question I'm ignoring the commonly reported issue of a partner going too far relative to what a person would ask them to do or move too quickly. I've mostly heard of or seen this done with more experienced practitioners who go very slowly and who communicate quickly and effectively. Basically I'm interested in the "happy path" arrangement: the partner goes as far as the person being stretched indicates they should and no further, at a consistently slow speed.

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I highly recommend "Stretching Scientifically" by Tom Kurz. It addresses this question directly and with great candor. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 10 '12 at 22:54
    
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4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

Both!

Starting with dangerous: Obviously, if your partner pushes you to hard, you could easily over stretch and tear something. Just like if you try to stretch to much, or to cold by your self and over do it.

Now on to the good stuff: It is absolutely beneficial. The one technique that I use quite often is to have yourself stretch to as far as it's comfortable, have your partner hold it, and you resist against your partner for 8-12 seconds. Then relax and your partner will push the stretch just a little further (as far as comfortable). This style of stretching is great for increasing flexibility and is hard to do solo.

By favorites for this are:

  1. Place your back against the wall, lifting a leg straight in front, with the resistance pushing down.
  2. Sideways to the wall, leg straight up to the side, with the resistance pushing down again.
  3. The butterfly stretch (sitting, bottoms of feet together, partner will be behind you, pushing your knees down).

You could also adapt these to some shoulder stretches. I don't do a lot of those, because I have fairly messed up shoulders, and the joints don't like that kind of stress.

Also note that it is important for the partners to communicate well with each other and for there to be a level of trust. They need to work together and push each other but not overdo it.

Some More information about the benefits of using a partner: Some of these you could, in theory do with out a partner, but you'll get a better stretch, and be able to push against the resistance better, if it's being provided by a partner. The standing, leg sideways one is a good example, sure, you could get almost the same stretch from doing the splits, but how can you resist against that? For the "butterfly" stretch, having to use your own elbows or hands to push your knees down will take away from your proper posture for the stretch.

Basically, by using a partner for the resistance, you allow for better range of motion and form and will have more steady source of resistance then you could provide yourself.

here are a couple of links about isomentric or pnf stretching:

http://articles.submityourarticle.com/Richard-Lane-372/stretching-83751.php

http://www.cmcrossroads.com/bradapp/docs/rec/stretching/stretching_4.html#SEC34

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Is there something preventing one from stretching the same limbs and muscles without a partner, for instance by pulling on a strap in your first example, or with a dancer's bar in the second, or by pushing with your elbows in your third? What does the partner add except increased possibility for injury? –  Dave Liepmann Apr 12 '12 at 20:33
    
i've added some more information about how having a partner can be better. –  Patricia Apr 13 '12 at 14:51
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From Tom Kurz' Stretching Scientifically, page 25, it's a great book, pick it up:

The practice of using partners in stretching is a waste of time, and it is dangerous. The helper is neither stretching nor resting.

This is an important point to remember: the wild inefficiency of partner stretching. Class time is valuable. Spending it holding someone else's leg for no good reason is a waste. Continuing!

The danger of using a partner in stretching is obvious. The partner does not feel what you feel. He or she can easily stretch you a bit more than you would like. If you feel pain and let your partner know about it, by the time the partner reacts, it can be too late.

I think there are exceptions (such as this), but they are very rare, and involve professionals guiding you through very specific stretches that, without a partner, would be logistically impossible or difficult. This is not the case for the vast majority of basic stretches, and does not include students haphazardly trying to help each other, or as happens too often in the martial arts, an instructor walking by in a group setting and trying to "help" (or more likely, show off his prowess at producing such flexible students) with a push.

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Unfortunately this doesn't really address the core of the question, since my question specifically is with regards to experienced practitioners who move very slowly and communicate very quickly. –  David H. Clements Apr 15 '12 at 18:49
    
@DavidH.Clements Kurz' point, with which I agree, is that it a scenario such as you posit is not possible, and that even if you discount that fact, the cost/benefit/time ratio of partner stretching is not positive anyway. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 16 '12 at 0:10
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Muscles, Tendons, Reflex Reactions

So, here's the important thing to know about stretching. Your body has natural reflexes in the muscle spindles which causes them to act as "brakes" to slow down a movement if it's being moved too fast for what the muscle expects. It's a way to prevent damage to the joints.

So the point of stretching is that it resets the muscle spindles to accept a new length as normal.

The benefits and problems of partnered stretching

A partner can help you isolate your stretching to just the muscles or joints you're looking for, and help you reset muscle length that you may habitually have over tight due to stress or posture. On the other hand, this requires a lot of anatomical knowledge and skillfulness on the part of your partner for safety - this IS physical therapy/kinesiology.

Without this knowledge, a partner can:

  • Stretch you too fast, causing the reflex action to cause a pulled or torn muscle
  • Go beyond muscle lengthening, causing torn or overstretched tendons (which destabilizes joints)
  • Have you set your muscles at a length too long to stabilize your joints safely

(You can also do this to yourself... but the benefit to solo stretching is that you at least have a little more direct body awareness to try to stop if something feels wrong, at least...)

Legs specifically

So, normally folks are stretching to get high kicks are doing stuff with hamstrings and hip muscles. (Back and abdominal muscles would not be bad choices to stretch as well, just from kinetic chain factor...)

The only dangerous part is if you are doing the stretching (partnered or not) and not getting strength training at those end ranges as well. With strength training, you can stabilize your hips and prevent injury, without it, you're opening up the joint play, but not in a controlled fashion - which makes you more likely for a pull, tear or strain at those end ranges... or in a fall.

There's also the fact that not everyone's hip bones are set up identically, and there will be natural limits to range of motion for some people - trying to stretch beyond a certain point for some is really just grinding the bone against bone (with your cartilage in between taking all that grinding...).

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The one stretching exercise you should never do with a partner is where you sit facing each other and he pushes your legs into a split by pushing against your ankles with his feet while pulling on your belt. AL this does is put strain on the cross ligaments of your knees, which are a weak point in your body even at the best of times. In most cases where a martial artist has knee problems. you will find that he has done this exercise or something similar on a regular basis.

Never use a joint as part of a lever when assisting someone in stretching. Push on the knees or elbows (depending on the requirement) rather than feet or hands.

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