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To stretch or not to stretch

To stretch, or not to stretch?

by Luke Nelson

Firstly I will say that it very much depends on the individual AND the sport they are about to participate in as whether they need to stretch: some individuals possess amazing flexibility and therefore don’t need to perform much stretching at all. And some sports and activities may not demand large amounts of flexibility i.e. going out for a jog.

Secondly you need to ask yourself, why are you stretching? Is it simply to warm you up, or is it to try and gain flexibility?

Before we go into the above points further, we should define a few key terms:

  • Warm-up: Processes associated with elevating core temperature and preparing the body for training or sport
  • Cool-down: Processes associated with decreasing core temperature and reducing the neural and physiological state of the body after training or sport
  • Static stretching: this is the most common type of stretching traditionally used. This involves getting into a stretched position, and then holding it there for a period of time (usually 30-60 seconds). For example reaching to touch your toes and holding there.
  • Dynamic stretching: this involves moving parts of the body with gradually increasing range. For example performing a kicking action with your leg, with each repetition getting higher and higher

There are many other types of stretching (including Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) & Active Isolated stretching (AIS)), but for simplicity of this blog we will just be comparing the main two types of stretching mentioned above (static and dynamic).

Which is better, static or dynamic stretching?

Both can have their purposes, but dynamic stretching should be the mainstay of any form of stretching that you perform. Numerous studies have supported the use of dynamic stretching for strength and performance.

In their study, Zakaria found that the addition of static stretching to dynamic stretching offered no additional benefit for injury prevention versus using dynamic stretching alone (Zakaria, Kiningham, & Sen, 2015). In fact static stretching has been shown to temporarily decrease strength immediately afterwards (although this can be mitigated by finishing with a dynamic stretch)(Simic, Sarabon, & Markovic, 2012; Walsh, 2017).  Therefore it is suggested to perform more dynamic movements after you have performed static stretching.

How long should I stretch for?

General consensus on the total duration of stretching to improve flexibility is that the total time in the stretch should equal 30 seconds. However this 30 seconds can be broken down into smaller stretching periods, and so long as it equals 30seconds in total, you will get the same results. For example 5 x 6secs,  2 x 15secs or 1 x 30secs still all equal 30secs of stretching.

Are there any other alternatives to stretching to improve flexibility?

Foam rolling can also be an effective way to improve flexibility and mobility, possibly without the detrimental affects that stretching can have on immediate power loss (MacDonald et al., 2013).

Resistance training! Yes, actually performing resistance training can have a positive effect on flexibility (Morton, Whitehead, Brinkert, & Caine, 2011)

Do you need a warm up?

The purpose of warming up is to increase blood flow to muscles so that maximum oxygen and nutrients are delivered which prepares the muscles for a rise in workload.  It is worth noting that a warm up is NOT the same as stretching: a warm up can be performed without even containing stretching.

The current weight of evidence favors warm ups decreasing the risk of injury (Fradkin, Gabbe, & Cameron, 2006).

For exercises that are power and strength based (i.e. sprinting, weight lifting, throwing, jumping, Crossfit), research supports the use of dynamic warm-ups to enhance power and strength performance. (McCrary, Ackermann, & Halaki, 2015).

An example of a warm up session may be:

  1. Elevate your core temperature with some light aerobic exercise for 2-5mins (i.e. light jogging, stationary bike)
  2. Improve mobility with dynamic stretching, foam roller and some static stretching for 5-10mins
  3. Then move onto sports specific warm-up with some drills

Do you need to cool down?

The cool-down or warm-down is part of preparation for your next session and can aid in recovery. Interesting static stretching performed alone in a cool down, does not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), so it should be complemented with other activities (Pooley, Spendiff, Allen, & Moir, 2017).

An example of a cool down session may be (very similar to warm up):

  1. Light aerobic exercise for 2-5mins (i.e. light jogging, stationary bike)
  2. Improve mobility with dynamic stretching, foam roller and some static stretching for 5-10mins
  3. Focus on relaxation to calm down mentally.

Summary

  • A warm up can certainly aid in performance (most important for power and strength activities), and it may reduce your chances of sustaining an injury.
  • Dynamic stretching should be the mainstay of your warm up
  • If you do perform static stretching, ensure you follow up with more dynamic movements
  • Generally you don’t need to spend more than 15 minutes TOTAL in your warm up and cool down
  • Foam rolling AND resistance exercise can also be effective ways to improve flexibility

References

Fradkin, A. J., Gabbe, B. J., & Cameron, P. A. (2006). Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials? J Sci Med Sport, 9(3), 214-220. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.03.026

MacDonald, G. Z., Penney, M. D. H., Mullaley, M. E., Cuconato, A. L., Drake, C. D. J., Behm, D. G., & Button, D. C. (2013). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release Increases Range of Motion Without a Subsequent Decrease in Muscle Activation or Force. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(3), 812-821 810.1519/JSC.1510b1013e31825c31822bc31821.

McCrary, J. M., Ackermann, B. J., & Halaki, M. (2015). A systematic review of the effects of upper body warm-up on performance and injury. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(14), 935-942. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2014-094228

Morton, S. K., Whitehead, J. R., Brinkert, R. H., & Caine, D. J. (2011). Resistance Training vs. Static Stretching: Effects on Flexibility and Strength. J Strength Cond Res, 25(12), 3391-3398. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31821624aa [doi]

Pooley, S., Spendiff, O., Allen, M., & Moir, H. J. (2017). Static stretching does not enhance recovery in elite youth soccer players. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med, 3(1), e000202. doi:10.1136/bmjsem-2016-000202

Simic, L., Sarabon, N., & Markovic, G. (2012). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01444.x

Walsh, G. S. (2017). Effect of static and dynamic muscle stretching as part of warm up procedures on knee joint proprioception and strength. Hum Mov Sci, 55, 189-195. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2017.08.014

Zakaria, A. A., Kiningham, R. B., & Sen, A. (2015). Effects of Static and Dynamic Stretching on Injury Prevention in High School Soccer Athletes: A Randomized Trial. J Sport Rehabil, 24(3), 229-235. doi:10-1123/jsr.2013-0114