There's a tonne of research out there for stretching before training, but how reliable is it? The Brake's verdict...
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We’ve all been taught about stretching from a young age. You might remember your poor 5-weeks-from-retirement primary school teacher trying desperately not to collapse whilst demonstrating a quadriceps stretch to a group of hyperactive, uninterested 8 year olds.
There are different schools of thought on the best approach to it, and like so many well-researched but inconclusive elements of exercise science, you really have to see what works for you.
General idea: dynamic stretch before training, static after or separately. PNF anytime
What Is Stretching?
Stretching through its various forms is basically an exercise to reduce stiffness and improve elasticity in a muscle or tendon. The result should be greater flexibility, range of motion, muscle tone and comfort.
Ideally it should facilitate an ability to complete exercises with better performance and lower risk of injury. Or that’s the idea.
Stretching comes in a few different forms but, to keep this article snappy, let’s look at 3 likely types you’d be doing:
1. Static: Stretching the muscle or tendon without movement (e.g. bending over and touching your toes)
2. Dynamic: Active stretching of the muscle through targeted movement (e.g. swinging a straight leg in front of you to feel an active stretch in the hamstring)
3. PNF: (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, stupid name) is basically loosening the muscle group through the use of targeted periods of static contraction and relaxation (in a sitting adductor stretch, contracting your knees against your elbows for a few seconds before relaxing and allowing the stretch to deepen)
Does Static Stretching Impair Performance In Speed And Power Sessions?
Now here’s where I want to clear up this question once and for all with a succinct and easy to digest answer.
The answer is yes - and no.
To quickly touch on the research (1), it basically says that static stretching can impair performance and elastic function in a muscle, but also that it tends to be when the stretch is held for longer than 60 seconds.
So whilst it seems that negative effects are linked to long duration stretches (even then the research is questionable), the studies also seem to enforce protocols that are not accurate to actual athletic endeavour.
For example, this study (2) found that when a static stretch protocol in isolation was used, there was an observed decrease in power output. However, a static stretching protocol succeeded by a sports specific, dynamic warm up, showed no ill-effects on power output.
So yeah, if you sit in a protocol of long duration stretches then immediately try to sprint or squat a heavy weight - it could be sub-optimal.
But, again, it sort of depends on your existing mobility and physical capabilities. You might be someone who needs to hold stretches for a longer period to help you achieve more optimal positions for certain exercises.
This improvement may be a beneficial trade-off for a slightly decreased performance whilst your body is learning these new ranges.
Literally had just completed a mixture of static and dynamic exercises prior to this
Short duration static stretches (less than 30 secs) prior to athletic movement are absolutely beneficial for increasing range of movement around a joint and haven’t been shown to cause any detrimental performance effects whatsoever (1).
I can confirm, as a speed and power athlete, that for years I have static stretched key areas before performance and found it absolutely essential for helping my body move optimally.
I’ve also heavily static stretched and loosened my glutes and hips prior to putting out peak power personal bests on a Wattbike. If it was cut and dry that static stretching impaired function that much, then I would’ve seen it.
So yeah, again, it depends on you really. If you have been static stretching as a part of your warm up routine for years and it works, then carry on. It needs to make sense as a logical facilitator of the desired outcome of your session.
A good template to follow is what I mentioned above:
dynamic before sessions, static after or separately in a standalone mobility session. PNF anytime
If you want to static stretch pre-session:
Incorporate short duration (<30s) static stretches to target areas that might feel ‘tight’ or otherwise uncomfortable.
Ultimately though, make sure that after you’ve stretched, you get active. That could be with active complexes in the gym with an empty bar or a selection of your favourite sprint drills.
Don’t overthink it and stay healthy.