One of the first thing I learned as I made my way from regular folk to fitness enthusiast was the importance of a proper stretch prior to exercising. It was a cardinal rule that was engrained in me early on that I had to adhere to if I wanted to perform better and avoid injury. For a lot of you reading this, I’m sure you can attest to this. For many years, stretching was considered the end-all be-all protocol before and after exercise. Static stretching, the most common type of stretch, was a mainstream phenomena for most of the 80’s and 90’s.
But at the start of the 2000’s, several research studies on stretching started revealing new findings. It turns out the hype about stretching isn’t all it’s made out to be. In fact, scientific studies now conclude that excess static stretching can cause injuries and affect performance in sports and exercise. Earlier this year, a research conducted by The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed that stretching before strength training negatively impacts strength. Another research study conducted by the same publication measured the impact of pre-exercise static stretch on power and muscular explosive performance. The researchers concluded that static stretching prior to strength training should be avoided. This means a person attempting a Deadlift 1RM, bursting off the block for a 100-meter dash, jumping for a tip-off in a basketball game or even a tennis serve will be at a disadvantage if stretching was done prior.
So this must mean stretching is bad for you right?
Not necessarily. I’ve always been of the mind set that stretching is extremely overrated. Now I’m not saying stretching is bad and should be discontinued. I’m simply stating that too much emphasis has been placed on pre and post-exercise stretching rather than dynamically warming up the body and self-myofasical release (arguably the most effective way to loosen tight and stiff muscles). Most people often confuse stretching and warming up but it’s important to note that they are very different. You can warm without stretching but you can’t and shouldn’t stretch to warm up. Stretching has many benefits including increasing range of motion and improving flexibility. However, when it comes to reducing soreness and injury prevention, the British Journal of Sports Medicine found little to no impact from static stretching on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in a 2011 research study. The researchers looked at 12 case studies on static stretching in the past 25 years and concluded that “stretching does not produce important reductions in muscle soreness in the days following exercise.”
Dynamic warm-ups and soft tissue work have replaced static stretches in the last 15 years as the protocol for prepping the body before physical activity. Dynamic movements mimic the activity that’s about to be performed and sends blood to those working muscles quicker than static stretching. Soft tissue work (rolling with the foam roller or tennis/lacrosse ball) is another phenomenon that has garnered mainstream attention over the last two decades because of it’s impact on loosening muscles without overstretching the fibers. Because movement is more efficient when muscles and connective tissues are warm and lengthened, dynamic mobility drills and soft tissue work are more effective than static stretching prior to sporting events and exercise. Jumping jacks, hip circles, inchworms, butt kicks, scapular wall slides and high-knee walk are some dynamic mobility drills that positively impact performance. Stretching loosens muscles and the surrounding tendons that connect them to bones. But when this happens prior to exercise, the muscles aren’t able to produce enough power and energy at an efficient rate. The elasticity response from the a static stretch prior to exercise weakens the muscle for up to 30 minutes, which isn’t the right way a person wants to begin an exercise or sport.
Warming up dynamically before a physical activity is the new norm and should have preference over static stretching. It allows for continuous movement, increase body core temperature and promotes blood flow, all of which can help improve performance. Motor control, coordination and balance are variables that are positively impacted from dynamic warm-ups. Static stretching on the other hand limits movement patterns and does very little redirecting of blood to muscle groups.
So here are 5 takeaways:
1. Static stretching improves flexibility while dynamic warm-ups improves mobility.
2. You should only stretch tight and short muscles. Stretching the whole body is a waste of time and can be counterproductive.
3. Post-workout static stretching does NOT reduce soreness.
4. Statically stretching a muscle too far and too long causes pain and injury to muscle fibers.
5. Stretching prior to exercise or sport negatively impacts performance.
Stretching has been and will continue to be one of the most controversial topics in fitness. While several research studies rule against it, there are some that are in favor of it. Although more research is still being conducted, the universal conclusion at this time is that it does very little to improve health, exercise and athletic performance. However if you must stretch, do so only when you feel stiff, after sitting or standing for a long time and upon waking up in the morning.