I hear it from coaches and parents all the time: "Make sure you stretch! All these girls keep getting injured because they aren't stretching!"
Although static stretching before training and competition has seemingly been around forever, just how important is it? Stretching does help increase your joint mobility, which can decrease your risk of certain types of injury. But is it as important as we've been led to believe? Is stretching the golden ticket to keeping athletes healthy?
Quick answer: NO. Here's why.
The Science of Joint Mobility
When considering the importance of stretching, you need to first know what we mean by joint mobility and its role in preventing injury.
The mobility of a joint determines the maximum range of motion the joint can move through without injury.
Generally speaking, increasing joint mobility allows your body to more easily achieve favorable biomechanics during movement. Better biomechanics allows you to load your muscles in a way that maximizes their ability to both produce and absorb forces.
Injury occurs when ill-equipped tissues (like ligaments and bones) are exposed to forces too high for them to handle. These tissues get exposed to such forces when your muscle is either not strong enough to handle the outside force, not positioned favorably via the joint, or a combination of both.
Increasing your joint mobility will allow your body to achieve better positions from a biomechanics standpoint. However, you must also be strong in those positions to really help reduce your injury risk!
What is Static Stretching?
Static stretching is the process of pulling your body into a certain position and holding that position for a prolonged period (usually 30 to 60 seconds). Think of when you grab your ankle toward your butt to stretch your quad and hip. This is a static stretch!
You will feel "looser" after a static stretch, but the short term effects fade pretty fast. The increased range of motion of the joint has been shown to last for around 3-15 minutes post-stretch. Repeated bouts of static stretching over longer time ranges, like weeks, will produce more concrete results. Think about if you start attending a yoga class twice a week. After a month, your body is much better at achieving certain positions than it was when you first started!
Simply put, static stretching helps increase the range of motion of your joint. Remember, better range of motion equals a better chance of loading your muscles more favorably during high force activities such as competition or training!
BUT, without strengthening that improved range of motion, better positions alone will not be enough to reduce your chance of injury. This is why strength training is a MUST for both male and female athletes.
So if you are strength training, when is the best time to static stretch?
Many coaches include static stretches during warm-ups to prepare your body for training with the hope this will reduce your risk of injury. However, research suggests static stretching during the warm-up will not accomplish what the coach nor the athlete desires.
The Goal of the Warm-Up
Why do you even warm up? Well, when you increase the blood flow to your muscles before a game or training, they are better able to perform when called upon.
More blood flow means an increased delivery of nutrients, oxygen and other essentials to your muscles when they will need them most.
Think of it this way. As your muscles receive more blood flow, they start to "wake up." The more alert or prepared your muscles are prior to performance, the better their ability to produce high forces—quickly—like when you are kicking a ball, sprinting down a field or snatching a new PR.
The more alert or prepared your muscles are prior to performance, the better their ability to also absorb high forces. This is extremely important when considering reducing your risk of injury. Remember, you want your muscles (not your ligaments and bones) to absorb outside forces, as your muscles are more equipped to handle them.
Since the goal of the warm-up is to increase blood flow, is static stretching the best way to go about it?
Research tells us no.
Why a Static Stretching Warm-Up Can Be Disastrous
During a static stretch, the opposing muscles of a joint are under high muscular tension. High tension constricts the capillaries of the muscle. When capillaries are constricted, blood flow decreases. Lack of blood flow to the muscle means less alert muscles for performance! That's directly counterintuitive to the goal of your warm-up.
As I said earlier, static stretching will definitely help you increase joint mobility. But again, this is only long-lasting when the stretches are performed consistently over a significant amount of time. And even then, the improved positions gained from static stretching are only truly favorable when those positions are also strengthened!
Before your game or training, performing static stretching will only help with joint mobility in the short-term. Short-term joint improvements are not enough to reduce your chance of injury, and decreasing blood flow to your muscles may actually increase your chance of injury!
Not only that, but studies show static stretching prior to training or game time can even compromise your performance.
This is especially true for high-speed, high-force sports that require movements like sprinting and jumping. When you stretch a muscle for long periods of time prior to performance, studies show there is a decrease in your muscle's ability to produce higher forces. This means slower sprints or lower jumps. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports analyzed over 100 studies on pre-exercise static stretching. Their conclusion? "Our results clearly show that (static stretching) before exercise has significant and practically relevant negative acute effects on maximal muscle strength and explosive muscular performance," the researchers wrote.
Research shows similar negative results with stretching prior to strength endurance sports like rowing. Muscles that are exposed to static stretching prior to performance have been shown to decrease in their ability to sustain a higher force output for a longer period of time. This means less powerful rows later in the race, when you need them most!
And the longer you hold the stretches, the bigger the negative impact on subsequent performance there generally is. Holding a static stretch for 60-plus seconds, for example, will do more damage to your game or workout than holding that same stretch for 10-15 seconds.
Dynamic Stretching: A Better Warm-Up
But if static stretching for your warm-up isn't a great idea, what should you do to get your body to achieve better ranges of motion and increased blood flow before your game? Dynamic Stretching!
In a dynamic stretch, you move your joint through a larger range of motion via movement instead of a static hold. Think about performing a Split Squat. A couple sets of 5-8 reps per leg allows your quad and hip to achieve a similar range of motion as a static stretch, but with the added bonus of increased blood flow!
This increase in blood flow means more awake muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This means muscles that will be better able to both produce and absorb force during your activity, be it a game or a workout in the weight room.
So Is Static Stretching Totally Worthless?
Decreasing your risk of injury depends on your body's ability to both move its joints into more favorable positions and also strengthening those newly available positions.
Long-term static stretching via yoga or other practices (even through strength training itself) will help your joints improve their mobility.
But the improved mobility is only going to help you in the long haul if you strengthen this newly acquired joint mobility. So when the heck should you static stretch?
Outside of your training time! Meaning not before your workout. Try adding a yoga class in addition to your lifting routine, or even finding a strength coach the prioritizes the quality of your movements.
Static stretching does offer some benefit for athletes, but static stretching alone is not enough to reduce your risk of injury! Joints that can reach more favorable positions puts you in better performance positions, but only if you're also strong in those positions. So avoid static stretching before and during your workouts or competitions, but if you can find another time to practice it and are also following a well-designed strength program, there are benefits to be had.
Thomas and Williams, Alun G. "Effects of differential stretching protocols during warm-ups on high speed motor capacities in professional soccer players." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20 (1). (2006). pp. 203-7. ISSN 1064-8011
Andersen, J. C. "Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk." Journal of Athletic Training, 40.3 (2005): 218–220. Print.
Warren Young & Simon Elliott. "Acute Effects of Static Stretching, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching, and Maximum Voluntary Contractions on Explosive Force Production and Jumping Performance." Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 72:3, 273-279, (2001). DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2001.10608960
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