April 12, 2013
For many of us, stretching has been part of our warm-up routine since we were kids. Whether we were at soccer practice, in P.E. class or getting ready for a big basketball game, we were trained at a young age to practice static stretching before exercise. So when research studies began finding that static stretching, such as touching your toes and holding the pose, can actually compromise an individual’s performance without reducing the chance of injury, many people were left confused and unsure, not only of when they should be stretching, but what kind of stretching they should be performing. Recently, two new studies have provided even more reasons why stretching is not right for everyone.
In a study published in The Journal of Stretch and Conditioning Research, researchers found that performing static stretching before lifting weights may cause you to feel weaker than expected during your workout. These findings were supported by a second study that was published in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, leading many to believe that stretching before exercise is not only unnecessary, but it may actually be counterproductive, as well.
To answer the many unresolved questions related to stretching and exercise, researchers at the University of Zagreb began reviewing hundreds of earlier experiments, focusing exclusively on the studies that used only static stretching as a warm-up. After narrowing it down to 104 studies that met their criteria, researchers were able to determine how much static stretching compromised an individual’s performance during exercise. What they found was alarming—static stretching reduces strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent for those who hold stretches for 90 seconds or longer. Furthermore, static stretching reduces muscular power, or the muscle’s ability to produce force during contractions, by about 2 percent. This, in turn, reduces explosive muscular performance by as much as 2.8 percent. An individual’s performance is likely to be worse than if they hadn’t warmed up at all, suggesting that static stretching is, in fact, counterproductive. Researchers from another study found similar results—the amount their volunteers could lift dropped by 8.3 percent after static stretching and many reported feeling unstable and unbalanced after stretching.
What does ACE think?
“Flexibility training is a vital component of a well-rounded fitness program. However, the majority of research to date shows that static stretching (holding a stretch in one position without movement) tends to be best suited for the end of a workout, as it is safer and more effective to stretch muscles that are properly warmed,” says Jessica Matthews, ACE Exercise Physiologist. She adds that an active, dynamic warm-up is a better way to prepare the body for activity, as this type of stretching helps to increase body temperature, enhance joint flexibility and increase muscle elasticity through a range of motion, functionally preparing the body for the activity to come.
What does this mean for me?
In general, to set yourself up for workout success, opt to save static stretching until after you’ve finished your sweat session and instead warm-up with dynamic exercises, which can include arm circles, leg swings and Frankenstein walks. Matthews also adds that individuals should consider incorporating myofascial release—which can be done using a foam roller or tennis ball—before completing a dynamic warm-up to decrease trigger points and knots within muscles, which can help to improve quality of movement and mobility.
Reynolds, Gretchen. "Reasons Not to Stretch." The New York Times. N.p., 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
By the American Council on Exercise