I remember, when I was at school, having to go through the age old routine of everybody gathering round into a circle and stretching each muscle group for 7 to 10 seconds before each training session and sports match.

At the time I didn’t find it that bad – nobody except suck-ups really bothered to do the stretches properly, and everybody else used the time as a chance to joke around before we had to do pyramids and other draining routines.

Nobody really felt deep down that stretching would help our performance – turns out we were right! Static stretching before exercise has been definitively shown not to improve your sporting performance, in fact static stretching before exercise could significantly reduce your performance levels…

Static stretching before exercise will hurt your sporting performance!

After having read the numerous studies performed to test the effect of static stretching before exercise on performance levels, I’m actually pretty pleased that I never took my coaches’ advise to stretch before exercise that seriously…

Static stretching before exercise decreases eccentric muscle strength:

Doing a standard static hamstring stretch has been shown to decrease the eccentric strength of that muscle for 60 minutes following the stretch!(1)

If you consider that a half of a soccer match is 45 minutes and a rugby match is 40 minutes, and that players are told to stretch before the game and again during the half time break, then, by following this traditional stretching advise, you could be pointlessly cutting your dynamic power for an entire game!(2)

Static stretching before exercise cuts tendon peak force and speed of force production:

In their publication ‘The influence of stretching and warm-up exercises on Achilles tendon reflex activity’ Rosenbaum and Hennig demonstrated that by statically stretching the Achilles tendon, peak force falls by 5 percent and the speed of force production falls by 8 percent.(3)

As with the hamstring stretch, ten years ago it would have been considered unthinkable to pass on stretching the Achilles – now we know better!

Static stretching before exercise will cut your explosive power: 

You’re probably getting the general idea from the above two examples that static stretching exercises actually cuts your explosive muscle power – this is exactly what a guy called Knudson showed in his research:

The peak vertical velocity produced by athletes doing the vertical jump was reduced in most athletes by statically stretching their calfs, hamstrings and quadriceps for 15 seconds.(4)

Coupled with this loss of explosive power, it has been shown that standard static stretching routines worsen the specific coordination needed to perform explosive movements. This lack of functional coordination would probably mean the performance lowering effects of static stretching will be greater in a high paced sports environment than in a slightly artificial test like the vertical jump.

Static stretching before exercise doesn’t improve sport specific flexibility:

It has been shown that, even though static stretches can improve your performance at doing that particular stretch, this doesn’t translate into better flexibility on the sports field.

This is hardly surprising really given that your nervous system is largely responsible for how flexible you can become at a particular movement. By statically stretching a muscle every day you are teaching your nervous system to make that muscle better at slowly lengthening. Unless your competing at how far past your toes you can reach, this isn’t going to help you!

To train your nervous system to make your muscles more flexible at performing the dynamic movements your sport requires, you need to practise similar dynamic movements, in a controlled manner, until you become better at doing these movements – you will know this as ‘dynamic stretching’.

At this point, you might be thinking that coaches normally encourage static stretching before exercise to prevent injuries, not just to improve performance. Fair point, but static stretching just doesn’t seem to prevent injuries when done before exercise…

Rod Pope, an Australian army physiotherapist, monitored over 2600 army recruits in randomised, controlled trials for a one year period, then making a strong case that passive stretching routines should be completely discarded as a means of preventing injuries.

Rod’s Results: Some recruits stretched certain leg muscles before exercise and others did not, but the injury rate stayed the same. Pope is quoted as saying, ‘We were able to rule out quite a small effect of stretching (on injury risk). ‘Stretching was assumed to work in preventing injury, but there was no evidence to suggest it did’. He concludes by saying, ‘We are telling the army no longer to stretch… but it’s a long tradition and tradition dies hard.’

Do we want to be more statically flexible?

Completely aside from whether or not static stretches can help your sporting flexibility, there are a lot of instances where you would not want to become more flexible:

Researchers at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma found that ‘decreased flexibility has been associated with increased in-line running and walking economy. Increased stiffness may be associated with increased isometric and concentric force generation, and muscle energy storage may be best manifested by closely matching muscle stiffness to the frequency of movement in stretch-shorten type contractions.’

One classic example of a sport where it isn’t generally considered a good idea to increase flexibility is power lifting. Based on the above results, it seems that it would be pointless to do any form of flexibility work before an in-line running or walking training session or competition, or as part of a power lifting training program.

Some of you might be willing to accept slightly lower performance levels for a long injury free career – but in the same study the researchers pointed out, “there is no scientifically based prescription for flexibility training and no conclusive statements can be made about the relationship of flexibility to athletic injury.’(5)

It seems there is a fairly strong case that flexibility isn’t actually related to injury susceptibility. It might be that other factors such as the increased heart rate, blood flow to the muscles etc. that are generated by a dynamic stretching/jogging style warm up are what helps athletes to perform better afterwards.

You may well be able to improve your chances of avoiding injury if you perform a good set of dynamic stretches before exercise. I personally would recommend this, but I’m less convinced than I used to be about the benefits of flexibility work for raising sporting performance and cutting injury risk after seeing the lack of solid evidence supporting this idea.

So should you do your static stretching after exercise then?

A lot of people upon hearing the news that static stretching before exercise isn’t a good thing seem to have assumed that you should still go through the old boring stretching routine after exercise.

Well, I guess this would be better than static stretching before exercise as it won’t damage your performance, but the explanations you will find as to how static stretching after exercise will help you aren’t at all convincing.

As far as I can find, these are the given reasons why you would passively stretch after exercise:

1) Relax muscles, realign muscle fibres and re-establish a normal range of motion.

2) Aid in disposal of waste products such as lactic acid.

3) Reduce the level of adrenaline in the blood.

4) Allow your heart rate to return to normal.

5) Reduce the potential for D.O.M.S. (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

Again, there is no evidence that passive stretching achieves these goals. Let’s look at why these claims should probably be ignored:

1) You might find static stretching relaxing, but the stretching movements you are doing do not correspond to many real life or sporting activities, at all. I’m sure you’ll agree that statically stretching your calf muscles doesn’t make walking more comfortable if your really sore after a hard training session.

In terms of realigning muscle fibres and re-establishing a normal range of motion the same argument as above applies. Gentle real life activities will gradually get your muscles back to their normal state after exercise. How can the ‘normal’ range for muscle fibres be when they are unnaturally elongated as in a static stretch? Weird…

2) A gentle jog would be the best way to get rid of excess lactic acid that has built up in the muscles during exercise– you could pick your knees up, flick your heals and jog side to side etc. to loosen off particular muscle groups that will probably have been worked hard in your training or game.

In fact, there is a debate currently going on in some yoga circles as to whether long static stretches create too much lactic acid in the muscles – so it’s hardly likely that static stretches help to release lactic acid after exercise!

3) This benefit of static stretching, which is often quoted, is just ridiculous… I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t lower your adrenaline levels after exercise, but you don’t need to stand around getting cold whilst you stretch your muscles to do this.

There are unlimited options that would be equally good, if not better, than static stretching for lowering adrenaline levels. Examples: you could take a short walk, you could sit down, meditate, have a cigar (joking).

4) This is similarly stupid… you’re heart rate would return to normal more quickly if you sat down and did absolutely nothing than if you stand around stretching.

5) In a systematic review of five moderate studies performed on the effects of stretching before exercise and stretching after exercise on muscle soreness, incidence of injury and athletic performance, the researchers did not find that static stretching helped to prevent muscle soreness:

‘Stretching before or after exercising does not confer protection from muscle soreness. Stretching before exercising does not seem to confer a practically useful reduction in the risk of injury, but the generality of this finding needs testing. Insufficient research has been done with which to determine the effects of stretching on sporting performance.’(6)

In terms of increased flexibility, some proponents of static stretching are now suggesting that you don’t do your stretching when your muscles are warm as the muscles will elongate and then return to their normal shape. Apparently it is better to stretch when muscles are cold if you want to actually increase the length of the muscle.

But I’ve got to stress again here that there is no evidence that increasing the length of your muscles in the way you do with static stretching will help your sporting performance or help to keep you injury free.

Final Note

If you, like me, find static stretching before exercise sessions pretty boring, I hope that this article will give you the confidence to cut these out-of-date practises from your pre and post match/ training routines.

The evidence suggests that static stretching before exercise will actually worsen your performance at most sports and static stretching after training will do absolutely nothing, good or bad (except waste your time).

Good advise would probably be to substitute the time you spend on static stretches at the moment for a set of dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretching, unlike static stretching, is sport specific and many coaches will strongly attest to it lessening the injury rates in their squads.

Whether or not these reduced injury rates are due to better flexibility from dynamic stretches or from other factors such as the increased body and muscle temperature, stimulation of the nervous system that dynamic stretches achieve is another question altogether though…

Ed Clements is a fitness and health writer who offers advice to men and women explaining how to optimise hormone balance through diet, training, lifestyle improvement and through intelligent supplementation.

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References and Footnotes

(1)Gleim & McHugh (1997), ‘Flexibility and its effects on sports injury
and performance,’ Sports Medicine, 24(5), pp. 289-299.
(2)Rosenbaum, D. and E. M. Hennig. 1995. The influence of stretching
and warm-up exercises on Achilles tendon reflex activity. Journal of
Sport Sciences vol. 13, no. 6, pp. 481-90.
(3)Knudson, D., K. Bennet, R. Corn, D. Leick, and C. Smith. 2000.
Acute Effects of Stretching Are Not Evident in the Kinematics of
the Vertical Jump. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport vol. 71,
no. 1 (Supplement), p. A-30.
(4)Raphael Brandon, “Dynamic versus passive stretches”, Peak
Performance Issue 150, page 10
(5)http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9368275
(6)http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/325/7362/468

 

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