Over the past few years most of you have probably come across at least one article purporting how current research is finding that stretching is not beneficial and may even be bad for you. For example, Gretchen Reynolds recently wrote an article for the New York Times entitled “Reasons Not to Stretch.” (1) She points to a study published in the April 2013 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2) and a meta-analytical review from The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports (3). Both conclude static stretching prior to exercise results in decreased performance, but they do NOT conclude that we should stop stretching OR that we should even stop stretching before exercise.
The study and the review that Reynolds cites as well as numerous other studies have clearly changed the way we need to approach stretching. Static stretching prior to activity negatively impacts performance, BUT static stretching is not the only way to stretch and before activity is not the only time to stretch. Reynolds and others are misleading readers into thinking that stretching is bad. This is simply not true! Stretching the wrong way is bad. Stretching correctly is beneficial.
Over the next few newsletters I will try to shed some light on how, when and why to stretch. In this piece I will focus on pre-exercise stretching.
So exactly what should you do prior to activity?
The answer is a dynamic warm-up routine. A number of studies have found that a dynamic warm-up before working out has a beneficial impact on performance. There are a number of ways to perform a dynamic warm-up including dynamic stretching. A 2005 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (4) found that dynamic stretching of the lower body resulted in increased leg strength compared to static stretching and no stretching at all. A 2011 study (5) found that jump height was significantly better after performing a dynamic stretching routine versus static stretching or no stretching at all.
What is Dynamic Stretching?
Dynamic stretching is movement based stretching. There are variations in how one can stretch dynamically, but in general you actively move in a controlled manner through a normal range of motion. You move into a stretch position but do not hold the stretch for more than a second or two. The movements should be similar to how you will be using your body during your workout. One of the best ways to stretch dynamically is a type of stretching known as Active Isolated Stretching (AIS).
To perform an Active Isolated Stretch, contract the antagonist (opposite) muscle group of the muscle you are trying to stretch and move into a stretched position. Hold the stretch for no more than 2 seconds and return all the way back to the starting position. Repeat 6-10 times. With each repetition go deeper into the stretch until you feel the area is warmed up and ready for more intense activity. For example, to stretch the hamstrings (back of the thigh) lie on your back and engage the quad (front of the thigh) to lift your leg off the ground as far as you can comfortably go. Hold at the end range for 1-2 seconds before returning the leg all the way back to the ground. Repeat 6-10 times. This can be accompanied by some light jogging or other form of light aerobic exercise such as jumping jacks or stationary bike. The amount of warm-up will vary depending on the intensity of the activity you are about to perform and how tight or loose you are to begin with.
What about injury prevention?
Research on the effect of pre-exercise static stretching and injuries has not been very extensive, but the existing literature is finding that the effect is neither positive nor negative. (6) (7) And unfortunately there simply has not been enough credible research on pre-exercise dynamic stretching and injury prevention. Hopefully this is an area that will be explored more thoroughly in the near future.
So the bottom line is that everyone should be engaging in an activity appropriate dynamic stretching routine before working out. It helps prepare your body for activity and helps you perform more effectively. And the next time you run across an article that says stretching is bad for you make sure to dig a little deeper and find out more details about exactly what the research has to say!
Don’t stop stretching, just make sure you stretch appropriately!
Sports Medicine Institute
1. Reynolds, Gretchen, “Reasons not to Stretch.”
New York Times, April 3, 2013.
2. Gergley, JC, J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr;27(4):973-7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318260b7ce.
3. Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G, Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 Mar;23(2):131-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01444.x. Epub 2012 Feb 8.
4. Yamaguchi, Taichi; Ishii, Kojiro, Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 19(3):677-683, August 2005.
5. Perrier ET, Pavol MJ, Hoffman MA. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jul;25(7):1925-31.
6. POPE, R. P., R. D. HERBERT, J. D. KIRWAN, and B. J. GRAHAM. A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 271-277, 2000.
7. Thacker S, Gilchrist J Stroup D, and Kimsey C. The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 36, No. 3, pp. 371-378, 2004.