Holding Your Stretch is Holding You Back

By: Juliana Gullotta and Laura Sturgill

If you’ve participated in any athletic event, you know that one of the first things you do is to start stretching before any activity takes place. Coaches and trainers emphasize that stretching should occur on a regular basic, and become part of an individual’s workout routine. These stretches are usually static stretches (holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds). The intent of prescribing stretching before exercise, is based on the assumption that by stretching you enhance performance, prevent injuries, and increase flexibility. However, several studies, including one from the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, have shown that stretching before exercise can actually do more harm than good, and increase your risk of injury.

Results from study Conducted by the University of Nevada comparing the effects of static, ballistic, and no stretching (control) on muscle power. Asterisk signifies statistically significant.

While stretching before exercise does activate the muscles and increase blood flow to the areas as a “warm up”, it can be potentially very detrimental to an athlete’s workout. This conclusion is especially pertinent when the sport in question requires maximal force production. In a study conducted at the University of Nevada, researchers determined that leg muscles generate less force after static stretching than if they did not stretch at all. When muscles are subject to the strain of static stretching, they remain in a weakened state, thereby temporarily reducing the force that it can produce. The researchers evaluated two types of stretching, ballistic (bouncing) and static (control is no stretching). After stretching for 3 sets of 30 seconds, subjects performed a vertical jump on a force plate. Power values were compared for each of the conditions (Figure 1). From this graph it is clear to see a significant difference in the power values observed in the control group and static group. The decrease in power after stretching could inhibit a good muscle building workout. For sports that require maximum power (ex. football), static stretching should be limited before activity.

Static stretching intervals should last for no more than 60 seconds, or moderate reduction in maximal muscle performance may be observed. In a study conducted by Behm et. al. the effects of static stretching on power-speed and strength tasks were compared. One of the main components of this study involved investigating the relationship between time spent holding a stretch and subsequent performance in a physical activity. In order to perform these tests, two groups of healthy and active adults were randomly assigned, with one group holding their static stretch for less than 60 seconds and the other for a period of time greater than 60 seconds. On average there was a mean reduction of muscle performance for both test groups, but the group that held the stretch for a longer period of time experienced significantly higher reduction rates in performance. For the individuals that held the stretch for less than 60 seconds, a mean reduction of 1.1% was observed and categorized by the researchers as a small reduction in performance. However, a moderate reduction of 4.6% was noted in the population that held the stretch for longer than 60 seconds, indicating that there is a dose-response relationship between stretching and maximal muscle performance.

To investigate this relationship further, two types of physical activity were studied. Power-speed tasks were given to both groups and the results supported the notion that on average static stretching, especially when held at higher intervals, impaired muscle performance in the test subjects. While only a small mean reduction rate of 1.3% was observed for this type of exercise, this change could be extremely detrimental to an athlete’s performance where maximal speed is critical (i.e. sprinters). Power tasks were also completed, and the negative effects of static stretching on performance became more apparent. On average there was a 4.6% reduction in an individual’s maximum muscle performance, with a higher instance of 5.1% reduction when the activities were completed after a period of stretching lasting longer than 60 seconds. In another study also conducted by Behm et. al, these findings were not only supported by additional trials, but also expanded upon to look at the long term effects of stretching on overall performance. In his initial study that looked at power and speed tasks, maximal muscle performance was calculated minutes after the the stretching was complete. The second study, however, observed the prolonged effects that static stretching would have on an athlete, and concluded that even 2 hours after the last set of static stretching, instances of decreased performance existed.

The results from these studies suggest that time spent holding a stretch and subsequent muscle performance have an inverse relationship. For this reason more and more coaches and athletes are looking to implement a different approach to their warm up routine.

Straight leg march can be used as a dynamic stretch alternative to the static sit-and-reach stretch. Courtesy of the New York Times

Dynamic stretching (Figure 2) is simply the act of stretching your muscles while moving, and it is an effective method to get your blood flowing and increase your power, flexibility, and range of motion prior to working out. This type of stretching is unique in that the activities performed have the ability to target specific muscles necessary for the task at hand. In other words, different forms of dynamic stretching would be used for a sprinter and a volleyball player because each sport requires a different amount and variety of muscle activity. Dynamic stretching allows athletes to engage their bodies’ muscles in a way that static stretching cannot, thereby quickly earning its place as a replacement to static stretching in many pre-workout routines.

While the value of traditional static stretching before exercise may be an outdated concept, the benefit of increased flexibility in athletes should not be ignored. For this reason post workout stretching is recommended as a “cool down”. If necessary, short duration, lasting less than 30 seconds, low intensity static stretches could be implemented before activity to get blood flowing to muscles and reduce stiffness, but this does not offer the best possible results. The ideal warm-up routine for athletes to minimize risk of injury and maximize performance should include aerobic activity, dynamic stretching, and sport specific dynamic exercises.

Questions to consider:

How would the stretching routine you made for football players differ from that of a sprinter?

There is a lot of information about how bad form or technique during exercise can cause injury, should there be attention called to the potential adverse effects of stretching improperly?

References

Samuel, M. N., Holcomb, W. R., Guadagnoli, M. A., Rubley, M. D., & Wallmann, H. (January 01, 2008). Acute effects of static and ballistic stretching on measures of strength and power. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22, 5, 1422-8. 

Behm, D. G., Blazevich, A. J., Kay, A. D., & McHugh, M. (January 01, 2016). Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism =, 41, 1, 1-11.

Shrier, I. (October 01, 1999). Stretching Before Exercise Does Not Reduce the Risk of Local Muscle Injury. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 9, 4, 221-227.

Behm, D. G., & Chaouachi, A. (November 01, 2011). A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111, 11, 2633-2651.

Shrier, I. (January 01, 2000). Stretching before exercise: an evidence based approach. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 34, 5, 324-325.

Herbert, R. D., & Gabriel, M. (January 01, 2002). Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. Bmj (clinical Research Ed.), 325, 7362.)

Reynolds, Gretchen. (2008) Stretching: The Truth. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/02/sports/playmagazine/112pewarm.html

Reynolds, Gretchen. (2016) The Right Way to Stretch. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/stretching-back-to-the-past/

Nah Coach, I don’t have to stretch.

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