The Rules of Stretching

6 04 2013

Growing up, I distinctly remember being taught to stretch before playing sports. Static hamstring stretching, static quad stretching, static shoulder stretching, etc. The one thing all the stretches had in common was they were static: extend or flex your limb into a full range of motion and hold it for 30 seconds. Hell, we probably even did this before parachute day in gym class…

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Well ladies and gentlemen, times have changed. As an undergraduate Phys-Ed student at Queen’s University in the early 2000s, I remember the rules of stretching being challenged by the latest research. By the time I graduated, it appeared as though it was actually detrimental to perform static stretching pre-exercise. Now, it is a foregone conclusion.

A friend of mine forwarded me an article from the NY Times the other day entitled Reasons Not to Stretch. Upon seeing the title I became a bit concerned that the content might be telling people that stretching should never be done, but thankfully the article explains exactly what I’ve been alluding to. Here are the Coles Notes:

  • Numerous studies have now shown that static stretching before physical activity does not prevent injury, and can actually limit speed, strength and power in athletes
  • It appears that the more a muscle is stretched before an activity (ie, the length of a static stretch hold), the weaker the muscle becomes
  • Athletic performance after warming up with stretching is likely to be worse than if no warm-up was used at all
  • Why stretching hampers performance is not fully understood; it is suspected that stretching simply over-loosens muscles and tendons, making them less able to store energy and use it effectively
  • It appears as though static stretching even impairs performance in long distance sports like running and cycling as well
  • The article concludes that a dynamic warm-up is a better alternative pre-exercise

In the end, it is an informative little article citing the most recent research in the field and further supports the sentiment that has been growing for some time now: dynamic stretching should be done pre-exercise and static stretching should be reserved for post-exercise.

What's your excuse?

What’s your excuse?

Dynamic stretching

The goal of dynamic stretching is simple: minimize risk of injury and maximize performance. Stretching dynamically gets the blood flowing to your muscles and preps your central nervous system for activity. Without a 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up, your muscles will be tight and stiff, which means you’ll be less flexible, less able to use correct form, less able to achieve peak performance, and far more prone to injury. As mentioned before, static stretching only compounds these issues, as you will be stretching tight, cold muscles, essentially damaging them before your activity. NOTE: some people like to perform a few static stretches immediately following a dynamic warm-up, once the muscles are warm; not much research has been done on the effects of this, but I cannot imagine it would be detrimental in any way.

So what does a good dynamic warm-up look like? Frankly, it depends on the activity. If you’re running out to play pick-up soccer, you can probably get away with a much quicker and unspecific warm-up, as opposed to say, going to the gym to strength train, where you would want to ensure that you target the appropriate muscle groups and movement patterns. A simple 5-minute dynamic warm-up for general activity could look something like this:

  • 20 jumping jacks
  • 20 seal jacks
  • 20 body weight squats
  • 5 lunges
  • 10 hip extensions
  • 10 leg swings
  • inch-worm
  • shoulder rotations
  • 10 push-ups

You can also toss in some short sub-maximal sprints and/or lateral movement drills, or jump rope, or just running around aimlessly for a few minutes. The idea, as mentioned above, is to get the blood flowing and prepare your muscles for action. Soft tissue work and mobility drills are also very valuable and important aspects to combine with dynamic stretching to really achieve a true and complete dynamic warm-up.

Weight training is a bit different, especially strength training, as you’ll be taxing your muscles in a very unique (and stressful) manner. My good friends Jordan and Paul have a Jacked and Strong Video Series on YouTube, and if you lift weights, you need to watch these 3 videos: The first is an extended dynamic warm-up (explained and performed in the video, in 8 minutes time), and the following two videos discuss a general pre-workout warm-up and an overhead pressing-specific warm-up (explanations only).

Static stretching

As the NY Times article explained, static stretching should not be done before physical activity. However, static stretching is still very important. Ideally, we should all be stretching on a daily basis, especially those of us that work desk jobs or drive for a living. I’m part of the latter group, which is why I always make time to stretch post-workout and make time for yoga on my non-lifting days. If I don’t take time to statically stretch, I’m stiff, sore, and find it difficult to maintain good form in my subsequent trips to the gym.

So why is static stretching important, especially post-workout? Well, lifting weights involves muscle contractions, leaving the muscles contracted (and damaged) for some time post-workout. Repairing this damage, and restoring this muscle length, is essentially what recovery is. Therefore, if you do not stretch after working out, you are delaying the recovery process, and quite possibly preventing performance gains. Logically, if you leave your muscles damaged and shortened after a workout, can you really expect them to be properly repaired and re-elasticized by your next trip to the gym? When you take the time to go through a static stretching routine after lifting weights, you will jump-start the muscle-recovery and re-lengthening process, enabling your muscles to return to a “normal” state as quickly as possible and best preparing your body for possible performance gains.

I’m not going to get into how you should properly stretch every muscle in your body, but Paul details post-workout strategies in the following video. Static stretching is important, but again, don’t forget to include mobility work and soft tissue work in your cool-down to optimize results.

In the end, both dynamic stretching and static stretching are valuable and should have a place in all of our lives. I encourage all of you to find 15 minutes every day to move your body in a productive manner, whether it be dynamically stretching when you wake up, static stretching after a walk or making time for a full workout or activity class. Stretching will keep your muscles happy and keep you feeling young, even as the years fly by!

For more detailed information on how you should be stretching, don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Happy Saturday!

DW