Put your hand up if you hate stretching?
It takes a long time out of your busy schedule, it can be pretty dull, and even unpleasant, but we all know we should do it, don’t we?
Proponents of stretching BEFORE EXERCISE claim that it is an effective way to increase the R.O.M (Range of Motion) of your joints and thereby reduce injuries.
Failing to stretch BEFORE EXERCISE, they say, will result in an increased risk of straining, spraining or even tearing a muscle during your workout or sport.
But is there actually any truth to these claims, does stretching before exercise prevent injury?
Short answer: No, probably not.
There have now been numerous studies on the effects of stretching before exercise, most show no difference in injury rates between groups which stretch prior to working out, and those that don’t. A few even show increased rates of injury in the groups which stretched!1
Not only is stretching prior to exercise unlikely to have any protective effect, it has been conclusively proven to temporarily reduce strength and power in the stretched muscle – not the effect you generally want if you’re about to undertake a hard training session or compete in a sport.2
The Effects of Static Stretching
Just to be clear, these criticisms are directed specifically towards static stretching, not warm-ups in general.
Static Stretching involves an external force pulling a joint to the end of its ROM and holding it there.
Think the classic quad stretch – standing on one leg, pulling foot to butt, and holding it there.
When a muscle is taken towards the end of its ROM there is an automatic involuntary contraction of the muscle (known as the myotatic reflex, an involuntary monosynaptic reflex). This is an inbuilt safety mechanism to stop a joint being taken too far and getting injured.
When stretched passively and statically, and held at this end of ROM for some time, this monosynaptic reflex is momentarily overridden, giving a temporary increase in passive ROM – that is the joint can be moved through that larger ROM using external force.
The Problem with Static Stretching to Warm-Up
The Stretch Reflex is useful: It helps prevent sprains and strains, and it contributes to dynamic power such as sprinting and jumping.
Passive ROM is of little use – one needs to be able to actively move your joints through the full ROM using your own strength in order to move effectively.
In addition to the problems caused by the overriding of the stretch reflex, excessive static stretching can also cause deformation of the ligaments and tendons, causing serious and long-lasting damage to joint stability.
Dynamic Mobility – A Better Way to Warm-Up
In dynamic mobility drills, the participant moves their joints through their full ROM actively – i.e. using their own muscle strength.
In place of a static quad stretch for example, one could perform heel flicks or lifts – lifting the heel to the glutes using the hamstrings.
Here, the contraction of the hamstrings actually causes the quads to relax, through the action of reciprocal inhibition – that is where the contraction of the muscle on one side of a joint, forces the muscle on the other side of the joint to relax to allow smooth movement.
Benefits of Dynamic Mobility Drills (DMDs) over Static Stretching:
- DMDs don’t dampen the stretch reflex, therefore don’t decrease power/strength/reaction time (actually shown to improve all)
- DMDs develop useful ROM – though it’s unlikely one can get the same ROM in an active heel lift as a passive quad stretch (i.e. you can’t press your heel into your butt without using your hand), you don’t use your hands to move your feet while you’re sprinting or jumping!
Examples of Dynamic Mobility Drills
- Wrist, Shoulder, Hip and Ankle Circles and Swings
- High Knee and Foot to Butt Marching/Running
- Walking Lunge and Squat Complexes
- Animal Movement Patterns
In our next installment, we shall be looking at stretching as a cool down after exercise, and whether it has any benefits for reducing muscle soreness of facilitating recovery.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below – BUT – Please read the article first, and respond accordingly. This article is about STATIC STRETCHING BEFORE EXERCISE AS A WARM UP. Maybe you love static stretching on a full moon because it makes you feel like a beautiful unicorn. That’s great, but has nothing to do with what we’re talking about here. Maybe we’ll get to that in part IV…
Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Shrier
Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G.