Do you always stretch before you exercise? If so, read on to learn about the latest studies and opinions.
Most people stretch
Many people believe they should be stretching before they exercise, with the aim of loosening up before their workout. Most fitness experts now agree that static stretching before exercise is not only counter-productive, but could be potentially harmful.
Stretching is the process of trying to lengthen muscles and soft tissue to increase flexibility. However, flexibility is mostly genetic; you’re either born flexible or tight. Flexibility refers to the maximum joint range of motion that can be achieved without causing injury to the joint support tissues. The important point for athletes, is to have the maximum functional range of motion required to perform an activity. So that “functional range” is more important than flexibility.
Over the years, there have been many reasons given for stretching, most of them are inaccurate. Stretching does not prevent injury or improve performance, but warm up activities do, so time is best spent warming up the muscles, rather than stretching before exercise.
Traditional stretches, such as bending to touch the toes or stretching a leg on a fence, often cause the muscles to tighten, rather than relax; this is the opposite of what is intended for exercising. Experts say it’s the equivalent of stretching a rubber band to its limit; when a person stretches to their limit, they are more likely to pull a muscle. When you stretch before exercise, the body may think it’s at risk of being over stretched. Therefore, it compensates by contracting and becoming tense. This then limits you to be able to move as freely or as fast.
What the experts say
Dr Kieran O’Sullivan, an exercise expert at the University of Limerick, in Ireland, has studied various types of stretching and the impact on athletes. Dr O’Sullivan says, “We have developed this idea of static stretching at the wrong time. Stretching helps with flexibility, but people should only do it after exercising.”
In the last few years, several studies have found static stretching before playing sport makes you slower and weaker.
Researchers at the University of Zagreb, in Croatia, analysed 104 previous studies performed on participants, who engaged in static stretching and then had their muscle strength and power tested. Their findings revealed that static stretching reduced the strength in muscles by almost 6% and reduced muscle power by approximately 2%, with the impact increasing in participants who held the stretches for 90 seconds, or more.
“These findings primarily apply to people participating in events that require strength and explosive power, more so than endurance. But, other research indicates evidence that stretching impairs performance in distance running and cycling, too.”
Can stretching make you weaker?
A similar U.S. study found that stretching before weight training can actually make you feel weaker during your workout. Researchers discovered that, when squatting with barbells, fit, young men could lift 8.3% less weight after static stretching.
Try warm ups
Instead of stretching, many experts recommend warming up with sport-specific exercise, such as kicking for football, walking for joggers or a few ‘air’ serves for tennis. This type of light movement increases the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, warms the body temperature and allows you to reach your full range of motion.
Research also shows that static stretching doesn’t work as well as more active types of stretching that incorporates movement, such as lunges.
Robert Meroni, of the University of Milan, says static stretching forces the muscle being stretched to endure pain, but active stretches work more muscles and the stretched muscles learn to extend while another group is working.
Don’t stop stretching
Experts don’t discount stretching completely, recommending people to stretch several times a week and that most types of stretches help. However, to maximise the benefit of stretching, consider how and when you do it. It’s recommended that you perform active stretches, that mimic your intended activity prior to exercise, to gain benefit and minimise potential injuries.