Sports were a significant aspect of life for many of us growing up. If that memory isn’t too far in the past you might recall the pre-practice or pre-game stretch. All your teammates would sit in a circle and follow the stretching ritual which varied little from game to game. Most of us did so with the assumption we would “loosen up those muscles” or “stretch so you don’t get injured.” Now that we live in an era where every supplement, program, and exercise routine are scrutinized, the pre-workout stretch has also been placed under the eye of science. Research has questioned the benefits of stretching for athletes and whether it imparts any relevant performance improvements. Does stretching really warm up your muscles before your exercise and does this improve performance? Additionally, is there any injury prevention aspect to stretching before your workout? The truth lies somewhere in the details but it seems stretching doesn’t quite work the way you might think.
Stretching is a complicated topic to study. There isn’t just one type rather, a variety of stretches and many programs in which they can be implemented. For simplicity, let’s focus on two types; static and dynamic stretching. Static stretching involves getting into a specific position and holding that position for a defined amount of time. The muscle is elongated whereby flexibility can be increased. Static stretching is also the most common type practiced among athletes. At some point in our athletic careers we have warmed up by trying to touch our toes or pull our arms behind our heads for a few seconds. Both are perfect examples of static stretching.
Dynamic stretching still involves getting into a static position but without holding that position. In fact, there are two ways to perform a dynamic stretch. The first is active dynamic stretching and second is specific dynamic stretching. Active stretches include pre-workout exercises like running or biking before you get to your lifts. Specific dynamic stretching tailors the stretch routine to your workout. A set of body weight walking lunges is an example of specific dynamic stretching done prior to a heavy leg workout in the gym.
Though the execution might be slightly different, the goal is essentially the same for both static and dynamic stretching. Each stretch type can help increase oxygen levels in the muscle, increase body temperature and heart rate, as well as reduce muscle stiffness. These physiological parameters have been shown to effectively improve performance. Both types can elicit such changes but the impact on performance is undoubtedly different.
Performance levels do, in fact, change as a result of pre-workout stretching routines. In a study by Nelson et al. nationally ranked sprinters at LSU had their 20-meter sprint times tested after following specific stretch protocols versus no stretching.2 Stretch routines consisted of 30 second holds followed by a 5-10 minute interval before sprinting. The researchers observed a slower sprint time by 0.04 seconds after static stretching.1,2 The difference between times was slight but, at the elite level, those seconds can differentiate between medaling and not making the team. Another interesting aspect of the study involved a psychological component. Most athletes said they felt uncomfortable without stretching despite the evidence showing improved performance. This suggests performance is independent of the athlete’s mindset prior to the event.
A different study by Herbert et al. also found a decrease in performance but in strength specific movements.3 The experiment looked at plantar flexion (calf extensions) strength over a one hour period with and without static stretching routines. The results suggested a significant decrease in strength - measured in torque - in individuals using static stretching. The groups that did not stretch showed a consistent maximal voluntary contraction or no changes in strength.3 The static stretches, comparatively, had a reduction in strength by 13% that lasted for up to one hour.3 Once again, a 13% reduction in strength may not seem significant but consider this at an elite level. A maximal back squat of 500lbs would go down 65lbs assuming the 13% loss due to static stretching.
Despite the decreases in performance, static stretching does have a specific function in your routine. It has been shown to improve flexibility in individuals that incorporate static holds on a regular basis. If flexibility restrictions are inhibiting proper execution of skill intensive movements then static stretching will absolutely be a help. For a comprehensive analysis of mobility/flexibility deficits, one should look no further than Dr. Kelley Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard.
If static stretching isn’t part of your routine then you still might want to add some type of warmup before your workout. Start your workout with an active stretch like a jog or, better yet, a movement specific dynamic stretch. Simulating the movement before your workout will provide those muscle fiber adaptations to maximize performance.1 There is something to be said about the psychological factor, however. As seen in the Nelson et al. study, an athlete may feel uncomfortable straying from their static stretch routine. There is still hope. The deficits caused by static stretching can be mitigated through the addition of some dynamic stretching movement.1 When combined with a normal stretch, dynamic stretches can reestablish the performance benefits as seen in many control groups in the literature.
Most athletes find comfort in their pre-game routine without realizing the detriment it may have on their performance. Static stretches aren’t all bad but need to be performed separate from your workout to ensure you are at your best. If you feel uncomfortable removing your pre-workout routine while you are actively training for an event, then simply keep it in. Add some dynamic stretches until you can work on a new routine to improve your performance and compete among the best.
- Zourdos, M (2017). Video: The Real Effects of Pre-Exercise Stretching. Outcomes and Mechanisms. Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS). Issue 1. https://www.massmember.com/products/mass-subscription/categories/234239
- Nelson, AG. Driscoll, NM et al (2005). Acute Effects of Passive Muscle Stretching on Sprint Performance. Journal of Sport Science. May 2005. 23(5):449-54.
- Herbert, RD. Gabriel, M (2002). Effects of Stretching Before and After Exercising on Muscle Soreness and Risk of Injury: Systematic Review. British Medical Journal. August 2002. 325(7362):468.
- Herbert, RD. Gabriel, M (2002). The Effects of Stretching Before and After Exercise on Muscle Soreness and Risk of Injury: Systematic Review. British Medical Journal. Aug 2002. 325(7362):468.