Stretching the Truth

For as long as I’ve been participating in youth sports, 21 years, I’ve been told about the importance of stretching before exercise.

Make sure you stretch so you don’t pull a muscle!

I’ve seen pro athletes stretch on the side of the ice during a warm up. At one time, I’ve even used it in warm ups, for myself and as a coach, teacher, and trainer.

But does the use of static stretching in a warm-up actually improve performance, warm-up the body, and reduce the risk of injury as we once thought?

First, let’s define static stretching. Perhaps the most recognizable form of stretching, static stretching involves moving to the end point of range of motion and holding a stretch for 15-60 seconds. Research has shown that the “sweet spot” is right around the 30 second mark, but benefits are seen in practices such as Yin Yoga where stretches are held for upwards of 2 minutes! It has been shown, when the time is extended, muscles often relax further and allow for a stretch in the tendons (the tissue that connects the muscle to bone).

Most often, the overarching benefit to static stretching is an increase in flexibility. Flexibility refers to the length of a muscle. By increasing our flexibility, we better circulate blood throughout the body, it assists in maintaining proper posture, and reduces injury risk by allowing joints to move through the full range of motion without limitation from the muscle itself.

However, research regarding the use of static stretching as a pre-exercise tool is largely mixed. And, in fact, leans toward the use of static stretching post-training session. If you’re going to attempt a maximum-effort lift, it may be a wise choice to skip the stretch. Research has shown a decrease in peak power output after a static stretching session.

On the other hand, if you have a habitually tight area and you’re performing a lower intensity workout that day, a short stretching session pre-workout may be beneficial. The research in this area shows neither a benefit or detriment, so experience is largely anecdotal.

Overall, stretching post-workout allows for a relaxation of the muscles that were broken down during that day’s training. It not only may help improve range of motion in the future, but also decrease tightness we may feel the next day.

So, what should you incorporate pre-training session to feel and move a little better? Dynamic stretching and mobility exercises!

Dynamic stretching takes the increased range of motion, developed through static stretching, and utilizes it during movement. We’ve all likely seen a youth sporting event warm up: high knees, swinging the leg back and forth, bounding, variations of skipping. All of these are forms of dynamic stretching. At its core, dynamic stretching involves actively moving a joint through its range of motion.

Unlike static stretching, where you’re in a set position and passively moving into a stretch, dynamic stretching and other mobility exercises allow you to actively move through the full range of motion with a joint. The benefits of dynamic stretching include muscle activation, improvements in range of motion, and may lead to greater power output during a strength training session. All great things we want pre-workout!

By utilizing the joints through a full range of motion in bodyweight movements, we prepare the body for the training session we’re about to complete. Dynamic warm-ups will incorporate exercises to mobilize, stabilize, and activate a variety of muscles in the body, dependent on the type of workout that will follow.

While participating in yoga and static stretching are great, I would save them for after your training session or in a whole separate session. Add them in on a recovery day or for a few minutes while you’re watching TV at night.

Since we need to use this range of motion in exercises that mimic patterns found in our workout, dynamic stretching is the way to go pre-training session. Specific mobility exercises can be used to correct deficiencies, fine tune movements, and warm-up tissues prior to placing them under load. After all, how much help is a flexible muscle if we can’t use it to squat, run, or swing a KB smoothly and pain free?

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