Stretching has always caused a huge debate amongst athletes, “should I , shouldn’t I?” Even many regular gym goers aren’t really sure of the merits for or against stretching before exercise. So what is the answer? Maybe this latest study might shed some light on the best course of action.
If you have been exercising for a number of years, you will know that static stretching after a warm-up but before the actual “big workout” was the norm. We all did it, no matter what exercise class you went to, what trainer you worked out with, no matter what sport you were involved in. Static stretching before exercise was, without a doubt, in vogue.
However, in recent years static stretching fell out of favor due to the fact that some studies showed that prolonged static stretching might cause reactions in the nervous system that temporarily weaken the stretched muscle. This led to the belief that athletes then might not be able to jump as high or sprint quite as fast after lengthy bouts of static stretching.
It wasn’t long before static stretching before exercise was shunned by many coaches and organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine. Whilst they all agreed that stretching was still advisable to prepare the muscles for the work to come they started to advocate dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is a much more active stretch where the limbs and joints are in motion as you stretch, for instance a high kick for the hamstring. It was thought that dynamic stretching would bypass any negative impacts on performance, while helping muscles and joints to warm up and prepare for intense activity. But little research has examined the actual performance effects of dynamic stretching.
So for the new study, which was published in June in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a group of international scientists, many of whom work with elite, national-team athletes, decided to test different stretching routines.
Twenty young, male athletes were recruited for the study. They were chosen from team sports such as soccer and rugby. The scientists wanted to ensure that the sport the athletes were involved in incorporated a lot of running, sprinting and sudden shifts in direction as these types of sports required a thorough warm-up.
To control for placebo effects, the researchers asked the athletes what kind of stretching, if any, they each expected would aid their performance. Almost all named dynamic stretching.
On four different days, each athlete warmed up at a human performance lab.
Their warm-ups were lengthy. It has been shown that in some of the past studies investigating the effects of stretching as part of a warm-up that the volunteers had just stretched and not warmed up as well, but as we know that is not real life in fact a 100m sprint is over in less than 10 seconds but the runners warm up for hours prior to the race itself.
Therefore the participants in this study started their warm-up with a few minutes of gentle jogging before stretching and then continued on with an additional 15 minutes of increasingly intense sprinting, jumping, zigzagging and other movements.
During the four days of the experiment, only the stretching changed during these warm-ups.
In one session, the athletes completed nine very brief static stretches of various muscles, with each stretch lasting five seconds.
On another day, the same nine static stretches were held for a total of 30 seconds each.
On a third day, the same stretches were all done dynamically.
And on a fourth day, the athletes did not stretch during their warm-up.
Each day after the warm-up was complete, the athletes were thoroughly tested on their ability to jump and sprint as well as their flexibility and agility.
The results were surprising for all who took part as they found that the men’s performances had not changed, no matter what their warm-up. They were just as swift, agile, powerful and lithe when they had not stretched as when they had, and whether that stretching had been static or dynamic.
“There was no difference in performance on each day,” says Tony Blazevich, a professor with the Center for Exercise and Sports Science Research at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, Australia, who led the study. “There also was no placebo effect; although the men almost universally had expected dynamic stretching to prepare them best for the coming activities, it had not. These results have multiple implications” said Dr. Blazevich. “They suggest, for one thing, that stretching does not bolster athletic performance when it is part of a full warm-up. But at the same time, they show that stretching does not impede performance, even when the stretching is static. In practical terms, these findings suggest that if you enjoy and trust stretching before a competition or workout, you may as well keep stretching” concluded Dr. Blazevich. “Our subjects felt more prepared for the tasks when the stretching was included,” he says, “and that psychological expectation might affect their confidence and play during an actual game. On the other hand, people who hate to stretch before exercise could probably skip the effort” he says “if they otherwise warm up.”
Of course, this was a short-term study and included only fit young men who play team sports. Now this does not mean that these results would be universal if applied to older people, women or anyone who competed in other sports such as distance running or cycling.
Also remember this study was only applied to pre-warm up stretching and does not apply to stretches done after an activity.
Stretching is still listed as one of the five components of physical fitness by the World Health Organization. It promotes full range of motion at the joints, therefore improving functionality and is a great way to prevent stiffness and pain in joints as well as affecting our posture.