From the first time we ever walk into a gym or onto an athletic field of any kind, we are conditioned to always stretch before strenuous activity. Such is the case in P.E. classes in grade school as well as in certain corporate work environments. It’s common knowledge, really: Before your body works, it needs to stretch. Or does it?
Do we even consider why this knowledge is so common and spread so easily? After all, what does stretching before a workout do that so wonderfully enhances human performance? The reality is that stretching is like flossing our teeth. We do it because we’re told to and even though we don’t know for sure that it helps, it sure does make us feel better at the end of the day to say we did. (And the first time something goes wrong, it’s simply because we didn’t floss enough.)
As it turns out, static stretching (the stationary “stretch and hold” types of stretches) before a workout, or any activity for that matter, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Is stretching before a workout bad?
Ian McMahan, a writer and sports medicine professional based in San Francisco, states that “When it comes to static stretching, research has now repeatedly shown that stretching before exercise is counterproductive and results in a temporary loss of muscle strength. These losses can be as much as 5 percent and are magnified in those that hold a stretch for longer than 45 seconds.”1
Consider for a moment what stretching is supposed to accomplish. Most people would probably agree that they stretch to “lengthen the muscles” or something of that nature. Think of your muscle as a rubber band. Naturally it is meant to expand and contract, however, once it has been stretched to the point of reduced elasticity it does not perform as well as it should.
Experts have augmented this idea by maintaining that a certain amount of “tightness” in the muscles is needed for some sports and activities.2
In other words, stretching may increase flexibility and weaken the stretched muscles at the same time. For some activities and sports, excessive flexibility is necessary. However, for most individuals and athletes, such flexibility is unnecessary and can even be detrimental.
Doesn’t stretching prevent injury?
McMahan explains that static stretching could reduce the risk of muscular strains in explosive-movement sports (football, track, etc.), but studies that found a decrease in muscle strain also noticed an increase in ligament sprains and other injuries after stretching.1
AP medical writer Maria Cheng, CDC points out that experts who reviewed more than 100 stretching studies found that “people who stretched before exercise were no less likely to suffer injuries such as a pulled muscle, which the increased flexibility from stretching is supposed to prevent.”2
In other words, stretching does not necessarily prevent injury. At least not as effectively as we have been intended to believe.
So what should you be doing before you exercise?
Warm up by doing simple movements with little to no resistance in a controlled setting (air squats, jumping jacks, pushups, etc.). This type of movement allows your body’s breathing rate, circulation and heart rate to increase in order to supply your working muscles with the blood, nutrients and oxygen they need. It also helps lubricate your joints. Stretching does not accomplish these very important goals and therefore should not be considered a warm-up.2
Mark Sisson quoted a study on his blog (marksdailyapple.com) that essentially found evidence that “dynamic stretching (think walking lunges, leg swings, stuff like that) improves flexibility and retains performance, while evidence is strong that static stretching does not.”3
Mark also cites another study that found that athletes who performed a brief warmup imitating the intended workout tended to perform better than those who performed a longer warmup.3
Keep it simple, keep it safe, and don’t overdo it. It’s called a warm-up for a reason.
Here are a few general warm-up ideas:
- Foam rolling (if possible)
- Movements that help maintain or increase range of motion at the joints
- Movements that mimic the activity to be performed, but in a controlled atmosphere with little to no resistance.
- A few specific examples of great warm-up movements are:
- Click to get more warmup ideas from Stack.com
So next time you’re in the gym, on the field, or simply getting prepared for any physical activity, use common sense and warm up in a way that will benefit your body and actually prevent injury. (Oh, and don’t forget to floss your teeth.)
What do you think about stretching before exercise? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments below.
About the author:
SpineCare Chiropractic provides a chiropractic blog with tips and tools to help you maintain a healthy and productive lifestyle.
Photo credit: coachfitness.com