Ever wondered if those pre- and post- workout sessions really make a difference in your daily exercise regimen? It is commonly believed that stretching prior to and following a workout will decrease the likelihood of injury, minimize post workout pain, and increase performance. However, other athletes and trainers believe that stretching has no impact on these factors and can even decrease strength and performance. But what are the facts?
Figure 1. Examples of active and passive/static and dynamic stretching.
There are several subgroups of stretching but I will focus on performance results with regards to the two most well researched types: static versus dynamic. Each stretch can be done actively or passively, where active stretching is when you contract the muscle in opposition to the one you want to stretch and passive uses an external force such as a strap, the force of your body weight, or gravity. Each type of stretching, shown above, has been shown to impact exercise in different ways. Let’s start with the most frequently used type, static stretching, where a person slowly moves muscles until they reach the brink of pain and hold that position for 20-30 seconds.
Static stretching has been compared to continuously stretching a rubber band. Immediately after stretching the rubber band, the band remains limp as it contracts slowly back into its original form, similarly to the behavior of a muscle. It seems unrealistic to expect a maximum amount of contraction and force immediately after stretching your muscle. In more physiological terms, the loss of muscular stiffness caused by static stretching results in an increase in length of sarcomeres in each muscle fiber, decreases contact between actin and myosin, and therefore decreases the force produced (Shrier, 2004; Kokhonen et al., 2004).
Figure 2. Actin and myosin movement in relaxed muscle versus contracted muscle. The less contact between actin and myosin, the less force produced.
One study by Fletcher and Jones (2004) on 97 male rugby union players showed a significant decrease in sprint times for the passive static stretch group. This could be due the mechanical impact of stretching on the muscle, kinematic differences, or neural inhibition which decreases the neural drive to muscle. Dynamic stretching focuses on moving through a range of motion repeatedly and mimics motion that will occur during exercise. Fletcher and Jones’ (2004) study showed more beneficial performance results from active dynamic stretching prior to sprinting though. The active dynamic stretch group of rugby players improved their sprint times significantly.
These results could be explained by information in a systematic review of studies on stretching and exercise by McGowan et al. (2015). This review showed that dynamic stretching increases the temperature of the muscle more than static stretching. This increase in temperature activated an increase in muscle metabolism, elevated oxygen uptake, and increased the power output of the muscle. Another study by Gray et al. (2008) showed a correlation between increased muscle temperature and faster ATP turnover, caused by an elevated rate of creatinine phosphate utilization and H+ accumulation. The elevated muscle temperature also resulted in short term (~2 minute) increase in anaerobic glycolysis and muscle glycogenolysis. These physiological responses, in theory, would result in greater power production during sprint and sustained high-intensity exercise, however high quality research results on this topic are limited.
Several literature reviews regarding this topic exist, but compiling results from hundreds of varying studies makes it difficult to normalize the results. Several reviews analyzed results that were not statistically significant, skewing the review results. By looking at the methods researchers used to gather and compile data and at the sources they cited, I was able to identify the sources where results were significant and relevant. The review also covered studies on a span of sports from swimming, to sprinting, to jumping, all which are impacted very differently by stretching, which makes the conclusions for these reviews far reaching statements. When more studies are done within each of these sports, reviews that group together specific events and exercises will provide more beneficial results.
When looking at the impact of stretching on pain, several papers used self-reported ratings of pain to measure differences. In those studies the results did not show a significant difference between ratings from groups that stretched and controls. Self-reported measurements of pain contain bias which makes them difficult to compare between groups of people. Some papers overcame bias by observing differences in delayed muscle soreness by measuring creatine kinase levels, a commonly used marker for muscle damage. One experiment by Buroker and Schwane (1989) showed no significant difference in creatine kinase levels from stretching post-exercise. Very few studies are done solely to measure the effect of post-exercise stretching on soreness and risk of injury so it is difficult to differentiate these results from the pre-exercise stretching.
Keeping these biases and knowledge gaps in mind when considering the results of these papers, it is plausible that for the majority of exercises, dynamic stretching can positively impact your performance. This is largely due to the fact that it increases the core body temperature and targets activity in specific muscles that will be used instead of just stretching them. Static stretches prior to a workout seem to have no impact or a negative impact on performance since the muscle needs time to recover and regain stiffness before use. Personally, this would convince me to do some dynamic stretches before my next run rather than static stretches. While it differs from sport to sport, dynamic stretching appears to be the ideal pre-exercise stretch to optimize performance.
Recommended Further Reading:
1. Blahnik, Jay. Full-Body Flexibility, Second Edition. Available at: http://www.humankinetics.com/excerpts/excerpts/types-of-stretches
2. Sifferlin, Alexandra. Why Stretching May Not Help Before Exercise. (April 08, 2013) Available from: http://healthland.time.com/2013/04/08/why-stretching-may-not-help-before-exercise/
3. Shrier, Ian. Sports Med (2004) 14:267-273. Available from: http://www.elitetrack.com/article_files/stretchingreview.pdf
4. Kokkonen, J., Nelson, Α. G., Cornwell, Α. (1998). Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 69 (4): 411-415. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9864760
5. Fletcher, IM, Jones, B. J Strength and Condition Research. (2004) 18(4), 885-888. Available at: http://staps.nantes.free.fr/L3/entrainement/etirements/THE%20EFFECT%20OF%20DIFFERENT%20WARM-UP%20STRETCH.pdf
6. McGowan, C.J., Pyne, D.B., Thompson, K.G. et al. Sports Med (2015) 45: 1523. Available at: https://link-springer-com.udel.idm.oclc.org/article/10.1007%2Fs40279-015-0376-x
7. Gray, SR, Soderlund, K, Ferguson, RA. J Sports Sci. (2008) 26(7):701:7. Available at: https://www-ncbi-nlm-nih-gov.udel.idm.oclc.org/pubmed/18409101?dopt=Abstract
8. Buroker, KC, Schwane, JA. The Physician and Sportsmedicine (1989) 17(6): 65-83. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.1080/00913847.1989.11709806?scroll=top&needAccess=true