Stretching: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

Stretching before a workout (or a sports performance) is a routinely followed practice. A good warm-up routine followed by stretching prepares the athletes (physically as well as mentally) for the task at hand. Furthermore, anecdotal as well as scientific evidence supports the view that a cardio warm-up followed by stretching enhances performance and prevents injury1;2.

Decreased flexibility leading to muscle strains (esp. hamstring strains) is a frequent occurrence in sports3. So much so, that it is one of the major reasons for loss of playing time in international sport4. Immense importance is, thus, attached to flexibility by athletes and their support staff.

Types of stretching

Since a very long time, stretching has always been associated with preparing your body for exercise (or a ‘match-up’). Traditionally, gym goers and athletes and have learnt to stretch in two fundamental ways.

These are:

• Static Stretching: a muscle is elongated to its longest possible length and then held for a pre-determined period of time (usually 30 seconds)5, for eg. a toe-touch stretch for the hamstrings.

• Dynamic/ballistic Stretching: involves movement of a limb or the torso in a smooth and rapid (but under control) way from its normal, anatomical position to the fullest range and then back again. Ideally, dynamic stretches are performed for a pre-determined number of reps and sets (on either side in the case of limbs)6. A brilliant example of dynamic stretching is ‘butt kicks’ for the quadriceps.

What is good for you, dynamic or static stretching?

Most people believe that stretching is solely for increasing flexibility. While that is true for static stretching, not many realise that dynamic stretching improves agility, speed, power and strength as well. And as we all know, these parameters define athletic ability more than flexibility. Thus, it can be safely said static stretching is good for increasing flexibility and dynamic stretching should be the choice for exercisers and athletes.

• If you want to increase flexibility:

Static stretching specifically increases flexibility. As such, it is recommended in rehab of injuries when increasing flexibility is the principle goal7.

• If you want to enhance sports performance:

Dynamic stretching has been shown to increase generation of muscle power during sports performance8. More importantly, regular warm-up combined with dynamic stretching helps athletes learn new (and maintain known levels of) sensorimotor skills9.

Static stretching, on the other hand, immediately prior to an exercise or a ‘match-up’ has been shown to be detrimental to performance10;11. A number of theories have been proposed for this:

1. decreased stability of joints caused by unduly excessive flexibility around joints (joint stability is required for twisting and turning; sacrificing joint stability is not such a great thing esp. in sports like soccer where one knee needs to be really stable while kicking with the other)

2. inhibition of stretch reflex (which is crucial for storing kinetic energy in your muscles and thus, generation of power, esp. sports like weightlifting, track and field and basketball) – research has shown that static stretching reduces sprint times12

Discussion

The research community in sports medicine is totally divided with regards to the type of stretching most effective for enhancing performance and preventing injuries.

Research carried out in the past has favoured static stretching in preventing injuries13. However, more recently, researchers have begun to report that static stretching may not improve performance or prevent injuries after all14-16.

In a study conducted to find out the lasting effects of static stretching on muscle length, de Weijer et. al reported that static stretching may, in fact, be detrimental to sports performance7.

Also, contrary to popular belief, the authors were of the opinion that a warm-up has no connection whatsoever with static stretches to be effective. Numerous others researchers also regard static stretching to be detrimental to athletic performance11;17.

Conclusion

The latest recommendation, therefore, is to avoid static stretching immediate pre-performance. An aerobic, warm-up routine followed by dynamic stretching is the best strategy to prepare for an exercise session or a sporting encounter.

Exception

There is an exception to this recommendation though.

For excelling at any sport, the activation of the glutei is of utmost importance. This group of muscles provides stability to the torso as well as propulsive (jumping, running, etc) and rotational power (throwing, twisting and turning, etc). Keeping the antagonist (opposing) muscles relaxed thus makes sense in maximizing the involvement of the glutes.

Thus, static stretching of the hip flexors (ilio-psaos) has been suggested as a good strategy to improve athletic performance.

Reference List

(1) McMillian DJ, Moore JH, Hatler BS, Taylor DC. Dynamic vs. static-stretching warm up: the effect on power and agility performance. J Strength Cond Res 2006; 20(3):492-499.

(2) Bishop D. Warm up I: potential mechanisms and the effects of passive warm up on exercise performance. Sports Med 2003; 33(6):439-454.

(3) Worrell TW, Perrin DH. Hamstring muscle injury: the influence of strength, flexibility, warm-up, and fatigue. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 1992; 16(1):12-18.

(4) Orchard J, Seward H. Epidemiology of injuries in the Australian Football League, seasons 1997-2000. Br J Sports Med 2002; 36(1):39-44.

(5) Anderson B, Burke ER. Scientific, medical, and practical aspects of stretching. Clin Sports Med 1991; 10(1):63-86.

(6) Murphy DR. Dynamic range of motion training: An alternative to static stretching. Chiropractic sports medicine 1994; 8:59.

(7) de Weijer VC, Gorniak GC, Shamus E. The effect of static stretch and warm-up exercise on hamstring length over the course of 24 hours. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2003; 33(12):727-733.

(8) Reiman MP, Peintner AM, Boehner AL, Cameron CN, Murphy JR, Carter JW. Effects of dynamic warm-up with and without a weighted vest on lower extremity power performance of high school male athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2010; 24(12):3387-3395.

(9) Ajemian R, D’Ausilio A, Moorman H, Bizzi E. Why professional athletes need a prolonged period of warm-up and other peculiarities of human motor learning. J Mot Behav 2010; 42(6):381-388.

(10) Booth L. Mobility, stretching and warm-up: Applications in sport and exercise. SportEX Medicine 2008; 37:20-23.

(11) Shrier I. Does stretching improve performance? A systematic and critical review of the literature. Clin J Sport Med 2004; 14(5):267-273.

(12) Fletcher IM, Jones B. The effect of different warm-up stretch protocols on 20 meter sprint performance in trained rugby union players. J Strength Cond Res 2004; 18(4):885-888.

(13) Hartig DE, Henderson JM. Increasing Hamstring Flexibility Decreases Lower Extremity Overuse Injuries in Military Basic Trainees. The American Journal of Sports Medicine 1999; 27(2):173-176.

(14) Malliaropoulos N, Papalexandris S, Papalada A, Papacostas E. The role of stretching in rehabilitation of hamstring injuries: 80 athletes follow-up. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2004; 36(5):756-759.

(15) Mason DL, Dickens V, Vail A. Rehabilitation for hamstring injuries. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2007;(1):CD004575.

(16) Pope RP, Herbert RD, Kirwan JD, Graham BJ. A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000; 32(2):271-277.

(17) Winchester JB, Nelson AG, Landin D, Young MA, Schexnayder IC. Static stretching impairs sprint performance in collegiate track and field athletes. J Strength Cond Res 2008; 22(1):13-19.



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Dr. Deepak S Hiwale

Dr. Deepak S Hiwale, a.k.a "The Fitness Doc" specializes in sports medicine in addition to being an elite personal trainer. He currently runs an elite personal training company in West London. As a sports injury and fitness writer-presenter, he tries to disseminate as much knowledge as possible for the benefit of all. MBBS (University of Pune); MSC, Sports and Exercise Medicine (University of Glasgow); Diploma in Personal Training (YMCA Dip. PT, London).

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