Over the last 20 years many sport science articles have reported performance deficits — typically three-five per cent — after prolonged static stretching (more than 60 seconds per muscle group) when not including dynamic warm-up activities.
That research almost sent static stretching to extinction as a component of a warm-up. However, evidence is building to show that when shorter durations of static stretching (less than 60 seconds per muscle group) are included in a full pre-exercise warm-up that includes aerobic activity, static and dynamic stretching, and dynamic activity, there are only trivial effects on subsequent strength, power, agility, sprint and muscle endurance among other performance variables. Unfortunately, there is still reluctance to incorporate static stretching into sport, fitness and health programs.
The stretching and flexibility research may not necessarily be at fault, but the interpretation of these studies may be flawed. For example, many studies incorporated unrealistic, stretching durations. The typical warm-up stretch duration of professional athletes is around 12-17 seconds per muscle, whereas most studies have used more than 60 seconds of stretching per muscle with some studies using 20-30 minutes of static stretching with a single muscle. Secondly, the testing is often conducted almost immediately following the prolonged static stretch rather than 10-15 minutes after, when the competition or training typically start and performance impairments disappear.
It is important to include static stretching in a warm-up because it increases joint range of motion, extensibility of the muscles and tendons, and improves the ability to move the limbs during sport or training. Stretching one muscle will even improve flexibility of contralateral (opposite) and other non-stretched muscles, which would be of great benefit during rehabilitation when you cannot stretch the injured limb.
Most muscle and tendon injuries occur when the muscle is in an elongated position. However, with stretch training, there is not only an increased range of motion, but the muscle is able to exert more force when in an extended position and can counterbalance the strain in these positions to limit injuries. There is strong evidence static stretching reduces musculotendinous injuries, particularly in sports that include explosive actions and rapid change of direction. There is also evidence chronic stretch training — a long-term stretching program — can help relieve pain.
Static and dynamic stretch training can also improve balance, which, especially for seniors, may reduce the incidence of falls and associated injuries. The rationale is that improved flexibility permits an individual to accommodate, absorb and respond more efficiently to balance threats. Substantial static stretching can also help to provide cardiovascular and stress-related health benefits.
Much of the past stretching research was not interested in the practical applications of stretching and examined stretching in isolation under impractical sport or training conditions to see how muscles responded as a basic science question.
However, when stretching research uses practical stretching protocols within a full warm-up, we find a reduction in muscle and tendon injuries, while having trivial effects on your performance.
Prescriptions for Stretching
Chronic increase in range of motion
- Separate training session distinct from warm-up activities
- Two to six days per week
- 30 to 60 seconds per muscle group
- Minimum five minutes per week per muscle group
- 60-100 per cent of stretch tolerance (point of discomfort)
Pre-activity (warm-up) preparation for athletic performance to acutely increase range of motion, having trivial or positive effects on performance
(e.g., strength, power, agility, sprint)
- Less than 60 seconds of static stretching per muscle group
- Within a full warm-up that includes initially about five minutes of aerobic activity, static and dynamic stretching (about 90 seconds per muscle group) and subsequent 5-15 minutes of dynamic sport or task-specific activities
Reduction in musculotendinous injury incidence
- Chronic static stretching
- 30 seconds per muscle group (may perform multiple shorter stretches to achieve total time)
- About five minutes per target muscle group (e.g. stretching for running would involve about five minutes of stretching of the quadriceps, hamstrings, triceps calves, hip adductors and abductors before lower-limb activities such as walking, running and jumping)
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