The Truth Behind Stretching Before Your Workout

I’m sure many of you can remember lying on your back and pulling your foot to the sky to stretch your hamstrings before every soccer or football game when you were young. This type of stretching (called static stretching) was a staple of every athlete’s pre-workout and competition routine.

However, if you were to ask any strength coach, physical therapist, medical doctor or personal trainer about stretching before your workout today, you’ll likely get a number of different answers. Some say this type of stretching is one of the best ways to warm-up while others believe it should be left until after the workout.

Today we’re going to discuss the truth behind this topic. We’ll dig into the scientific research to allow you to make the best judgment on static stretching. Then we’ll talk about practical ways to integrate static stretching into your program.

What is Stretching?

Stretching a muscle increases your range of motion by decreasing stiffness of the tissue. While there are a number of different methods to stretching (listed below),

We’re going to focus on static stretching and its affect on your training for today’s article.

  • Static – this is your classic stretch most people think of. For example, if bend over to touch your toes and hold the tension you feel in your hamstrings, you are performing a static stretch.
  • Passive– this is performed when a partner moves your body into a stretch and proceeds to hold the tension while you are completely relaxed.
  • Dynamic– this is a controlled movement into stiffness. Think about performing a deep bodyweight squat, lunge or arm swings.
  • Ballistic– this involves using your bodies momentum to bounce in and out of stiffness. It’s not recommended by many experts for the fear of potential injury but is sometimes used by dancers.
  • PNF – this is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and describes a combination of passive stretching followed by different types of muscular contractions. During the common “contract-relax” PNF stretch, a partner pushes you into a short duration stretch that is followed by a brief 5-10 second contraction of that stretched muscle. After relaxing, the partner then pushes the muscle further into another stretch.

What does Science Say?

Researchers believe that performing static stretching prior to a workout or athletic competition can help reduce the risk of a muscular strain injury. (3) This is one of the reasons why this type of stretching was so popular 20+ years ago.

However, there is a growing amount of research lately that has come out showing that this type of stretching before exercise can lead to a decrease in strength, power and speed, therefore limiting an athlete’s performance. (4) In fact the American College of Sports Medicine and European College of Sports Sciences have both come out recently condemning static stretching as a part of a warm-up routine! (5,6)

When you look at all of the research that has come out on this topic (106 articles in all) it’s hard to disagree with this notion at first glance. Though if you look at the details of these published articles, you’ll find it’s not static stretching itself that is the problem but LONG DURATION static stretching!

When you compare the actual time of stretching, we find that short duration stretches (less than 30 seconds) have NO harmful affect on muscular performance while still bringing out improvements in mobility. (1,2,4) It’s not until the stretch is held for more than 45 seconds that we see significant loses in strength, power and speed!

Application

Let’s now discuss how these findings can be applied to your warm-up routine and specifically in reference to ankle mobility. Before we get started, try this 5 Inch Ankle Mobility Screen to see if you have adequate mobility.

Ankle Screen.jpg

The ability to pass this test (knee touching the wall) means you have adequate ankle mobility. If this is you, feel free to perform short duration static stretching (<45 seconds) for your calf muscles during your warm-up without fear of hindering your performance.

For example, I’m a huge fan of the deep goblet squat ankle stretch to improve ankle mobility prior to my training. Sit into a deep squat (using a kettle bell or weighted plate to offset your body weight) and drive your knee over your toes until you feel a good stretch in the back of your calf muscle. Hold 3-4 stretches on each side for 10-30 seconds.

However, if you found significant stiffness in your ankle mobility during that test (knee unable to touch the wall), stretching for longer than 45 seconds may be appropriate for you. Large mobility restrictions hinder good technique, therefore stretching for longer durations in order to get into better technical positions may outweigh the decreases in performance for that training session.

AnkleAffectsChest.png

Final Thoughts

Stretching prior to your workout is not as black & white as many people think. It all comes down to the individual and goal of the training session and/or competition. It depends on context and how well you know your body. If you have been stretching prior to practice or competition for years and it makes you feel good/ready, then keep doing it!

I hope this quick article empowers you to make educated choices on when/how to static stretch.

Until next time,

SquatBottom
Dr. Aaron Horschig, PT, DPT, CSCS, USAW

With

Kevin Photo
Dr. Kevin Sonthana, PT, DPT, CSCS

 

Resources

  1. Bandy WD, Irion JM, Briggler M. The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Phys Ther. 1997; 77:1090-6
  2. Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. Moderate-duration static stretch reduce active and passive plantar flexor moment but not Achilles tendon stiffness or active muscle length. J Appl Physiol. 2009; 106: 1249-56
  3. McHugh MP, Cosgrave CH. To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010;20:169-81
  4. Kay AD & Blazevich AJ. Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Jan; 44(1): 154-64
  5. American College of Sports Medicine. ACSM’s Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription. 8th Philadelphia (PA): Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins; 2010. p. 173
  6. Magnusson P. Renstrom P. The European College of Sports Sciences Position statement: the role of stretching exercises in sports. Eur J Sport Sci. 2006;6:87-91

 

Published by

Dr. Aaron Horschig

Doctor of Physical Therapy, CSCS, USAW coach and athlete.

3 thoughts on “The Truth Behind Stretching Before Your Workout

  1. Maybe its age but if I don’t stretch before working out my whole body won’t function. I will take decreased speed and strength before I take injury and have to either sit out or go get help to recover after performing at a high level and causing injury. Thanks for all you do.

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  2. Great article, Doc! Little bit of story time on my part, and how some of this article plays into my own life: For myself and my clients at the gym where I work, I always use dynamic movements first and foremost, and then may follow up with a short stint of static stretching, or simply save the static stretching for recovery post-training session. If it is something that involves the hips (i.e. any sort of squatting movement), I am a big fan of “prying” or “squat yoga”, in which I will set a lightly loaded barbell on my back rack, drop down to my ass-to-grass depth, and simply shift around, periodically re-positioning my feet and my knees to really open up my hips, not just my ankles. Very much like your deep goblet squats. Especially with my back squats, full Cleans and full Snatch, I have witnessed significant increases in performance and comfort in the bottom, as well as improved mobility of my clients, especially in the ankles in a few of them. Gone are the days of pre-workout static stretching that I grew up with, or were shoved down our gullet while I was on active duty with the Navy. Thanks for all the great information, Doc, especially in the other two Squat Myth articles you posted. They have significantly helped me out both as an athlete and as a trainer.

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