There seems to be a lot of confusion about when we should be stretching and what type of stretching to do.
The benefits of stretching cannot be ignored. A lack of flexibility seems to play a role in the development of chronic injuries such as patella-femoral syndrome (knee pain), low back pain and shoulder pain. In fact, a lot of ailments and minor niggles that people complain of often seem to alleviate once a rigorous static stretching regimen is implemented. Performance can also be inhibited by inflexibility. A sprinter with overly tight hamstrings, for example, may not be able to achieve enough hip flexion thereby shortening stride length.
Rigorous stretching programme in progress
Despite these benefits, there are plenty of naysayers and even some research to suggest that stretching before a workout is a bad idea. Traditionally, a warm up consisted of static stretching alone. Sometime in the eighties, a study popped up showing that static stretching decreases power output in the muscles for at least one hour thereafter – not exactly what you want before a weights workout. It has also been shown in other studies that static stretching prior to intense physical activity does not reduce the risk of acute injury. The reality is that static stretching is a poor form of warm up for any type of exercise. I think the problem lies not with static stretching itself, but with what people expect to gain from it. It shouldn’t be used to warm-up; it should be used to increase flexibility in the long run, thereby reducing injury risk.
Following on from this, many experts started recommending static stretching after a workout to negate this strength decrease. To throw another spanner in the works, top soft tissue experts are now recommending that static stretching should be done cold, without warming up. The idea behind this is that when warm, the muscles simply elongate and then return to their normal state, whereas stretching a cold muscle will force it to undergo structural changes and increase in length. So, does that mean we’ve come full circle and should stretch at the beginning of our workouts?
I’m sure you can now see where the confusion comes into play, but that still leaves us in the dark as to when to stretch. Static stretching should be done to increase the length of the muscles and reduce injury risk in the long term, not as a warm up. We’ve already established that it’s not that effective after a workout when the muscles are warm, so the only logical time to do it is at the start of a workout or at a completely different time, outside of your workout. For most people, stretching at some other time is either impractical or just won’t get done despite all good intentions. For this reason, I’d recommend you stretch before your workout. But what about the decrease in strength? Well, unless you’re a power lifter, Olympic lifter or are warming up for a serious sporting event, I’d say you’ll be fine. For the average gym rat, I don’t think we need to worry too much; the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
What about static stretching being a bad warm-up?
Glad you asked! It’s time to introduce dynamic stretching or mobility training. This should be done after the static stretching and before your resistance training. Dynamic stretching involves moving about whilst stretching. This includes things like arm swings, knee, hip and shoulder rotations and neck circles. The goal here is to get the blood flowing and raise the body temperature. Also, mimicking the movements that will be used in the workout to follow will prime the central nervous system for the load bearing stuff to come. Look out for an article on dynamic stretching/mobility training in the near future.
Take home points
- Static stretching can decrease strength in the short term, is a bad warm-up and won’t reduce the risk of acute injury.
- Static stretching is best done cold.
- Static stretching should be done to increase muscle length and reduce long-term injury risk, not as a warm up.
- Static stretching should be done before your workout, or at a completely different time.
- Following this, a dynamic mobility warm-up should be done to prepare the muscles for lifting.
Stretching isn’t fun and it isn’t sexy. For this reason it tends to be the ugly ginger haired stepchild of gym training. Good old fashioned static stretching is highly underrated. It shouldn’t be seen as an afterthought, it should be an integral part of your training if you want to reduce injury rates, sort out long term aches and pains and perform better.