Finally the Truth About Stretching. Should I Stretch Before I Exercise?
As we come out of the holiday season, we all begin to think about our resolutions for the upcoming year. Most of the time, this will involve fitness goals of some kind, whether it’s to get in better shape, lose weight, or learn a new sport...the common theme is that we all want a better version of ourselves in some way. One of the best ways to stick to your plan and achieve your goals, is to avoid getting derailed by an injury! The most common thing we often think of to do to avoid getting hurt is to stretch, right? But unfortunately, there are a lot of conflicting messages out there online and it can get a little confusing. So I want to summarize this information for you (objectively). I’ll tell you what we do and don’t know from the research, so you can decide for yourself...Is stretching worth your time?
For the purposes of our discussion, we should quickly clear up a couple of definitions. Static stretching refers to stretches that are held for a length of time (typically 30-60 seconds), and dynamic stretching refers to oscillations in and out of the stretch with no hold. The reason is that while these terms are often used interchangeably, each may actually have different effects. So the most frequently asked question about stretching: does stretching keep us from getting injured when we exercise or play a sport? The answer: absolutely not! No form of stretching has been shown to reduce injury risk in the short- or long-term. There you go, shortest blog ever, no debate needed. But wait…
Why is stretching still so popular then? Well first of all, it just feels good to do! After we stretch, at least for a short period, we are able to move farther and into a greater range of movement. In other words, we feel more flexible. This improved flexibility is greater with static stretching compared to dynamic stretching. For this reason, static stretching used to be a mainstay of every pre-game warm-up routine in any sport. But the problem is, most sports don’t require us to go to the end-ranges of our motion, let alone stay in that position for 30 seconds. And on top of this, studies began to show that static stretching may actually reduce muscle performance! Muscles may have a little less strength and power immediately after a bout of static stretching. This prompted a shift to dynamic stretching before exercise or activity. The thinking was that this more closely mimics the muscle actions required during sport-specific tasks. In fact, some studies even showed a short-term improvement in muscle performance after a bout of dynamic stretching! How nice would that be for most of us?
But...is static stretching really that bad? Let’s put that into some perspective. The strength loss in the studies that I mentioned above after static stretching is very small (1-5% of max strength). In other words, you still have 95% of your available muscle strength, which is perfectly sufficient for most sport demands. Also, we don’t know for sure if this strength loss even carries over to affect sport performance, or which sports may be most affected. And it’s worth mentioning that static stretching certainly does not increase your injury risk, either.
So...how do we make sense of this and decide what to do? I’ll try to summarize below:
- Stretching (of any kind) will not reduce your injury risk, whether done just prior to activity or during a long-term stretching protocol
- For most sports, an ideal warm-up should consist of light aerobic activity (get your heart rate up), large-amplitude dynamic stretching, followed by sport-specific movements. The goal of stretching is to improve performance, not reduce injuries.
- If your sport requires time spent in the end-ranges of your movement, consider adding static stretching to your warm-up
-For most of us, if static stretching feels good to you before you exercise, then by all means, go ahead and stretch! Personally, I do. If you don’t have time, then don’t worry about it. Know that it likely will neither help nor harm you...especially when it comes to getting injured
Now one thing to keep in mind, our discussion here has centered on acute effects of stretching prior to activity. Long-term static stretching is a bit different and is something probably worthy of its own blog post, as this is where I get the most questions in the clinic. If you have any questions about what stretches are right for you or how to set up your fitness routine, please reach out and we’d be happy to help! But remember, the most important thing is the fact that you’re getting out and being active...less so what you do beforehand!