Static Stretching and Athletic Activities: Stretching the Truth, but Not Much Else
By: Ross Cameron, PT Student
By: Ross Cameron, PT Student
Whether you’re an athlete, a gym-goer, a jogger, or your athletic experience is limited to gym class, you’ve likely been told at some point that when you participate in athletic activity, stretching is good for you. Historically, the popular belief has been that a held static stretch can have benefits on your musculoskeletal system and improve outcomes in relation to athletics. The exact prescription of static stretching varies, whether it be before or after activity, the time to hold each stretch, or what muscle groups to stretch. However, this train of thought might be outdated, as more recent evidence suggests that static stretching has no benefit to physical performance. In fact, some studies have found that static stretches can actually impair muscle strength and explosive power. In a paper entitled “Questioning the Use of Static Stretching Before and After Athletic Activities,” Dr. Bahram Jam, PT, discusses the current literature, and how it disproves the proposed benefits of static stretching.
The paper is available in the link below:
What Exactly is a Static Stretch?
Static stretching is the “traditional” form of stretching a muscle and is familiar to the greatest number of people. It involves lengthening a muscle to the end of its tolerated range, where the position is comfortable without pain. Videos of two common static stretches, a quadriceps stretch and pectoralis major stretch, are shown below as examples. The time for which this position is held varies depending on who you ask, but, on average somewhere between 20 and 45 seconds. These types of stretches often aim to target individual muscles and isolate one joint at a time when possible. Because of this, stretching many muscles on both sides of the body may be fairly time-consuming.
What are the Proposed Benefits of Static Stretching?
There are four main proposed benefits to performing static stretching before and/or after athletic activity, each of which Bahram disproves using evidence from the scientific literature. They are as follows:
- Static stretching improves range of motion by lengthening muscle and tendon tissues
- Static stretching improves athletic performance
- Static stretching reduces post-exercise muscle soreness
- Static stretching reduces the risk of injuries during athletic activities
To those without an in-depth education on anatomy or physiology, these proposed benefits don’t appear that unrealistic. They have also been promoted for years as reasons to incorporate stretching into athletic activities. However, each statement is untrue and will be discussed.
1. Static Stretching improves range of motion, but not by lengthening muscle or tendon tissues
Static stretching programs have been observed to elicit increases in the range of motion, such as improved hamstring mobility after several weeks of stretching. However, more recent studies have found that there are no changes to muscle fascicle length or displacement to the muscle-tendon junction. In simpler terms, there are no significant changes to the physical properties of the muscle or tendon tissues that would explain the increases in flexibility. Proposed mechanisms that explain the improvement in mobility include an increased tolerance to stretching in nerve endings located in the muscle. If these nerve endings are less responsive to a stretch, they won’t signal muscle activation of opposing muscles as early, thus allowing for a greater range of motion to be achieved. It’s also possible that people who stretch often have a higher tolerance to pain during stretching and can push further into a greater range of motion.
If stretching doesn’t increase muscle length, what are alternatives which can? Research has shown that eccentric strength training can increase muscle fascicle length and improve flexibility. Eccentric contractions are when the muscle produces tension as it lengthens, such as slowly lowering your heels down from a tip-toe position. An important cue for eccentric exercises is to perform them slowly and with control.
Below is a video example of an eccentric calf raise
2. Static stretching does not improve athletic performance, and can actually impair performance
Multiple studies have observed that when performed before an athletic activity, static stretching can reduce muscle strength and explosive power generation. In terms of muscle strength, long-duration static stretches, held for 60 seconds or more were found to reduce eccentric muscle contractile force. Another study found that static stretching during strength training, either as a warmup or between sets, reduces muscle strength. When looking at athletic performance, static stretching has been found to either be detrimental or have no impact on endurance sport performance, with similar findings for power-based performance. In one study, sprinters ran slower times when their warmup consisted of static stretches. Comparably, vertical jump performance was found to be reduced when static stretching was performed in advance.
Instead of using static stretching, athletic performance can be improved with a proper neuromuscular warmup prior to the activity. This consists of raising the heart rate, body temperature, and blood flow to muscles, as well as performing light, functional movement patterns to engage large muscle groups and prepare the musculoskeletal system. There are many other facets of athletic performance that can be an avenue for improved performance. These include, but are not limited to: proper hydration, improved nutrition, strength training, sport psychology, and technique analysis. Each athlete is different and will have the most appropriate strategy for improving their individual performance.
Below is a video of Bahram Jam demonstrating a clock lunge exercise, which can be incorporated into a warmup. This exercise is composed of dynamic movement in multiple planes, engaging major muscle groups of the lower body.
3. Static stretching has no impact on post-exercise muscle soreness
Static stretching, regardless if it is performed before or after a workout, does not have any effect on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This contrasts with what is commonly advised to reduce soreness a day or two days after lifting weights or exercising. In fact, the existing evidence suggests that there is no difference in DOMS following unilateral leg exercise when one leg is stretched and the other is not (Johansson et al., 1999).
Instead of incorporating static stretching to reduce DOMS, the best strategies include a proper dynamic warmup and a gradual introduction and progression into a new exercise program. As mentioned earlier, a good dynamic warmup increases your heart rate and prepares muscles and joints for the upcoming movements. Next, by slowly introducing a new exercise regime, you decrease the number of microtears that occur in muscle sarcomeres, and therefore the resulting muscle soreness. Gradual introduction and progression allow for the neuromuscular and musculoskeletal systems to adapt to the new demands being placed on them and reduce the DOMS experiences post-exercise.
4. Static stretching has no impact on injury risk
It may be a common belief that static stretching can reduce the risk of muscular injury, but the existing evidence finds that there is, in fact, no correlation. Multiple systematic reviews found that static stretching prior to exercise creates no significant reduction in injury risk. Furthermore, studies have found that an athlete’s flexibility is not a useful indicator for predicting injuries. As mentioned earlier, static stretching can improve flexibility, but since this has no impact on injury prevention it further dissuades the use of stretching as a preventative strategy.
Instead of static stretching, effective injury prevention strategies include eccentric strength training, gradual progression in strength training, and a dynamic warmup prior to exercise. One study observed that with eccentric strength training, hamstring injury incidence was reduced, and recovery time from injury was also accelerated. A progressive strength training program that is slowly introduced can reduce the risk of sports injuries and overuse injuries, as well as the recurrence of these injuries. Finally, a proper warmup can increase muscle tissue temperature, range of motion, and reduce the incidence of injury. (Christensen & Nordstrom, 2008)
So what does this all mean?
So, what is the significance of the proposed benefits being disproven?
It means that there is a risk of patients being misinformed and not taking the best measures to maximize their safety and performance in athletic activities. None of the rationale supporting static stretches is complex, yet a quick search on the internet results in countless sites and sources claiming them to be true. By setting patients up with proper alternatives to static stretching we can achieve the desired outcomes that stretching has been claimed to elicit.
We also know that patients only have a finite amount of time for physical activity, and any time wasted with static stretching could be prevented. This is why it’s important for us as professionals to provide patients with factual education and refer them to reliable sources.
Empowering patients with strategies to find trustworthy information for their own health will set them up for the long-term benefit.
Embodia offers a library of over 2000 demonstrative and instructive exercise videos which can be sent directly to patients through the Home Exercise Prescription program. Additionally, Embodia's Patient Education Library contains resources such as post-surgical scar massage, sleep recommendations, ergonomic principles, and more. All of these resources can be shared with patients and paired with exercises to create a more complete treatment strategy.
Resources and References
Christensen, B. K., & Nordstrom, B. J. (2008). The effects of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and dynamic stretching techniques on vertical jump performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 22(6), 1826-1831.
Jam, B. (2015). Questioning the Use of Static Stretching Before and After Athletic Activities. Advanced Physical Therapy Education Institute.
Johansson, P. H., Lindström, L., Sundelin, G., & Lindström, B. (1999). The effects of pre exercise stretching on muscular soreness, tenderness and force loss following heavy eccentric exercise. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 9(4), 219-225.
PT, D.SC.PT, M.PHTY, B.SC.PT, FCAMT
Bahram is a physiotherapist and founder of the Advanced Physical Therapy Education Institute (APTEI). He's taught 1000+ continuing education courses to healthcare professionals across Canada & internationally.
He has instructed over one thousand post-graduate orthopaedic and pain science courses and has been a guest presenter at several physiotherapy and medical conferences across Canada and internationally.
His primary clinical approach is to identify relevant functional impairments and determine the best self-management strategy to maximize patient independence.