IS STATIC STRETCHING POINTLESS?
When is the last time you performed the stretch below?
Well if you have not performed it while wearing a tie and an intense facial expression then you are missing out on life. Or, if like me you forgot this stretch existed and haven’t performed it since high school PE – well this is one of the movements that come to mind when I think of static stretching.
Like this movement, static stretching before most types of workouts has become a dead practice as gym-goers and athletes become more savvy with bang-for-buck dynamic movements that not only save time (and are more interesting than standing still while tugging at your shoulder capsule), they increase mobility more effectively and also improve your performance in your chosen activity.
The purpose of this blog is absolutely not to shit-can static stretching, as I personally enjoy some of the benefits of a good stretch hold depending on the purpose I am using it for (context is always key here!). It is merely for education – pros and cons and when to use different forms of stretching, plus a few practical examples that you can implement into your training right away.
What is stretching?
The aim of stretching is literally to the increase the length of a musculotendinous unit – that is, increasing the distance between a muscle’s origin and insertion (6). And why should we stretch our muscles? Any Google search will give you a list of benefits:
- Increased range of motion (ROM)
- Injury prevention
- Injury rehabilitation
- Improves performance (depends on the type of stretch, also elaborated below)
- Increased flexibility
- Stress relief, etc.
There are three main types of stretching, although numerous subtypes exist.
- Static stretching
- Dynamic stretching
- PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching
Static stretching – holding a muscle in a mildly uncomfortable and stretched position for a period of time (e.g. somewhere between 10 – 60 sec)
Dynamic stretching – moving a limb through its full range of motion, with or without the use of momentum (7), repeated for a number of repetitions without holding the end positions.
PNF stretching – typically involves a contraction of the opposing muscle to stretch the target muscle, followed by an isometric contraction of the target muscle (7). Usually performed with the assistance of a load or a fellow human.
For practicality I will only be focusing on static and active dynamic stretching as these are not only the most commonly used types, but are easily done individually without much assistance or equipment.
Pros of Static Stretching
TO GET GOOD AT STRETCHING
If being flexible in certain positions is your goal or a sport-specific requirement, hanging out in the splits for a few minutes per leg in front of the TV every day may be a good idea for you (please speak to your gymnastics/karate/diving/contortionist coach before taking this up as a past-time).
Note for thought – your improvements in flexibility may not actually be from lengthened muscles, rather an increase in stretch tolerance (4). This is the ability to experience stretched sensations at a reduced discomfort level meaning you can stretch further. (So it’s all in your head ????)
TO INCREASE YOUR RANGE OF MOTION (ROM)
ROM may be limited by either joints or muscles. Joint restraints include joint geometry as well as the immediate surrounding structures that allow the joint to work as a functioning unit. Muscles provide the tension required (as signalled by your brain) to move the joint to the position required for your desired outcome (e.g. your bicep contracts to move your elbow joint to get your hand holding a Twix bar into optimum chomping position).
Sometimes things may not be working optimally which leads to reduced ROM. Excessive tension or “tightness” may occur due to postural adaptations (e.g. desk jobs), tissue scarring (as caused by injury – see next point), or even spasms (see your Doctor!) to name a few (6). This tightness in conjunction with your regular training schedule may lead to muscular imbalances as your body attempts to use other muscles to support these tightened muscles while performing your 10RM squats.
The good news is that static stretching can often result in increased ROM (6). The more interesting news as noted above, that this extra ROM may just be in your head again (increased tolerance to stretching rather than an actual increase in muscle length). But the real question is, does it really matter? Who cares if it feels good!!
Note for thought – more is not necessarily better. Studies have suggested that 10-30 seconds is enough to enhance ROM (5, 6) repeated twice. No increase in flexibility occurred after 30 seconds (5) or after 2 to 4 repetitions (6).
TO REHABILITATE AN INJURY
Once an injury has been sustained during sports whether requiring surgery or not, your body begins to lay down scar tissue in attempt to heal the injured site. This scar tissue usually has a stiffer and less supple structure to the original tissue it is replacing which may lead to decreased ROM of and around the affected site. Studies have shown that static stretching can have a significant effect on ROM of the injured site after sports injury surgery (2) as it can increase muscle length where scar tissue occurs and also align the new tissue fibres during healing (6). Obviously you should be working with your health professionals if this applies to you as they will know how to best rehabilitate your injury.
TO RELIEVE TENSION, STRESS AND GET SOME GOOD FEELS
Moving is what a body is designed for and interrupting periods of inactivity for a mobility and stretch session always leaves you feeling fresher. A short sequence can relieve tension and make you feel a little less stiff, but may also have stress relieving benefits. The stress relief may come from the mindfulness aspect of holding a position for a period, while actively using breathwork to relax deeper into the stretch. And by now we know that controlled breathing and a little mindfulness goes a long way for mental health, and to pair it with some tension relieving stretching sure is a great recipe for some good feels!
Cons of Static Stretching
IT CAN CAUSE UNSTABLE JOINTS
Now that you have gotten good at stretching, what are you going to do with all that mobility? Being more mobile in and around a joint does not automatically mean this joint will be stable, if stability is defined as being able to control the joint smoothly throughout its ROM. This is where strength training can play an important part using exercises specific to what you are trying to address. A good coach can help you work through anything minor, however you should seek advice from a Physio or an Accredited Exercise Physiologist to work through anything causing you grief.
IT MAKES YOU SLOW
So remember how I mentioned static stretching before a training session or workout has become a thing of the past? The reason is simple and science backed = it makes your performance slower. This is a big con for those of you who compete against yourself for performance gains or against others for glory. Whether your sport or training is strength, power, speed, agility, or endurance-dominant, static stretching as part of your warm up can have negative effects (7, 1). Non-stretched muscles have a degree of tension in them which creates a spring-like action to propel you forward due to the elastic potential energy stored within them. Stretch that spring out, and you’re going to have a hard time moving very fast or powerfully. The studies also reported that the effect of static stretching for a period of 20-30 seconds (such as within an old-school warm-up) on flexibility is not all that different from longer durations (1), so that seemingly “quick stretch” may not be doing you any favours.
So what to do about getting some movement into your joints? Dynamic stretching! Read on for some tips.
Note for thought – a study suggested that if static stretching is used prior to an activity, any potential negative effects on performance may be dissipated if you proceed to complete a dynamic warm-up (7).
Furthermore, shorter durations of stretching within a warm-up, such as a total stretching duration per muscle of \30 s may not negatively impact subsequent performance especially if the population is more highly trained. However, it would be wise to be cautious when implementing static stretching of any duration or for any population when high-speed, rapid SSC, explosive or reactive forces are necessary, particularly if any decreases in performance, however small, would be important.
GET MOBILE, GET WARM, GET FAST
A great alternative to static stretching to add to your warm-ups is dynamic stretching. This involves oscillating in and out of end ranges of motion for the targeted joints and tissues and has a lot more of a carryover effect into your athletic performance.
Here are some of its advantages (1):
- Work through sport-specific ROM by actively and rhythmically contracting muscles
- Raising muscular temperature
- May contribute to post-activation potentiation (a.k.a. firing up for your session)
- Enhances muscular performance especially where explosive style movements are involved
Read on for a few of my favourite bang-for-buck dynamic movements for general training. This is not a comprehensive or sport-specific list, but movements that feel great, move through multiple tissues and joints, and get you warm and ready for a great training session.
Click the image thumbnails to view the video demonstration for each movement:
Adding Dynamic Stretching to Your Warm-Up
A good warm up should aim to increase your heart rate, raise the body temperature and increase compliance of your tissues to get them ready to perform your intended movements. The following is a simple guide that can be manipulated to suit your needs.
- Low to moderate intensity aerobic activity
- To raise the heart rate and core temperature
- Soft tissue work with foam roller or trigger ball
- Only add if necessary. No need to spend much time here – pick 2-3 spots and spend no more than 30 seconds per spot. Remember you are not trying to break tissue down here so the pain factor should be no more than a 6 out of 10.
- Dynamic Mobility and Dynamic Stretching/Flexibility
- To work through Range of Motion especially involving the major joints involved in your upcoming training session
- Muscle Activation
- To “switch on” (for lack of a better term) muscles necessary for your session. For example glute exercises using a mini-band.
- Movement Integration / Patterning
- To begin rehearsing and priming the movement patterns in your training session. Got squats on the menu? Add some squats here. Doing a sprinting session? Add in your technical drills here.
- Neural Activation / Post-Activation Potentiation
- To excite your whole system with fast or high force movements at low repetitions to fire you up. If you’re familiar with ION warm-ups, the Drop to Sprint makes a common appearance as it is simple and effective.
So When Should I Static-Stretch?
As mentioned previously, static stretching sure does have it’s benefits. Where you slot it into your routine though is the important part.
The best time to incorporate it is during your post-exercise cool-down or a separate static stretching training session planned independent of your more vigorous sessions, to achieve a more permanent change in flexibility for health or performance (3).
Enjoy getting stretchy!
Ellen Wong, ION Community Manager and Senior Performance Coach
1 – Yamaguchi, T. and Ishii, K. (2005). ‘Effects of static stretching for 30 seconds and dynamic stretching on leg extension power’. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), pp. 677-683
2 – Sajedi, H., Bayram, M. and Bilgic, M. (2020). ‘Effect of PNF, ballistic and static stretching on the range of motion after sports injury surgery in football athletes’. African Educational Research Journal, 8(1), pp. 105-109
3 – Behm, D. and Chaouachi, A. (2011). ‘A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance’. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 111(11), 2633-2651.
4 – Magnusson, S.P., Simonsen, E.B., Aagaard, P., Sorensen, H. and Kjaer, M. (1996). ‘A mechanism for altered flexibility in human skeletal muscle’. Journal of Physiology, 497(1), pp. 291-298
5 – Bandy W.D., Irion, J.M. and Briggler, M. (1997). ‘The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles’. Physical Therapy, 77(10), pp. 1090-1096
6 – Page, P. (2012). ‘Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation’. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(10), pp. 109-119
7 – Peck, E., Chomko, G., Gaz, D.V. and Farrell, A.M. (2014). ‘The Effects of Stretching on Performance’. Current Sports Medicine Reports: May/June 2014, 13(3), pp. 179-185