Have you been told by a coach, trainer or the internet that stretching should be an important part of your training regimen? Stretch before, stretch after, stretch during and stretch whenever you get the chance, in fact, forget your day job and just STRETCH!
Static Stretching seems like a common crutch for many of us in the fitness industry. It is claimed that it can reduce the risk of injury, decrease muscle soreness and result in greater flexibility through muscle and tendon lengthening.
While other modes such as more dynamic versions of stretching seem to demonstrate more positive outcomes such as that found by Place et al (2013) where ballistic stretching performed prior to vertical jumps increased height, static stretching cannot say the same.
Unfortunately the research has a tough time backing up such claims by static stretching.
I know… Heartbreaking.
Now this does not mean static stretching and the implementation of it is completely USELESS but it also doesn’t mean that static stretching and the implementation of it is completely USEFUL.
The point is that as practitioners or those practicing, we need to be careful about how we justify it’s use with athletes, physique competitors, ourselves and the list goes on!
Let’s first address what static stretching cannot promise you.
Common Shortcomings of Static Stretching:
Static Stretching is often recommended under the mindset of its vast ability to reduce and prevent the likelihood of injury. Is this truly the case?
This problem with this assumption is that there are two many confounding variables that could contribute to injury like poor sleep, nutrition and high levels of fatigue. For this reason, arguing that static stretching has some god like ability to prevent injury is nonsense and the research would argue the same. While studies like Witvrouw et al 2003 show that increased hamstring stiffness leads to increased risk of injury (ROI), it can’t be said that static stretching would have prevented this. To date, 3 systematic reviews (Thacker et al 2004, Hart 2005, Lauersen et al 2014) have come to the same conclusion about static stretching and its effect on injury prevention…
It’s just not yet determined to be effective!
Injury prevention seems to be more manageable through neuromuscular warm ups prior to exercise seem to be effective along with eccentric based strength training, not through static stretching (Jam 2015).
One main misconception about static stretching is the effect it has on reducing delayed onset muscle soreness. Many people implement static stretching before or after training in attempts to limit the soreness that arises in the coming days.
A systematic review by Herbert & Kamper (2011) between 12 different studies, found an end result of static stretching applied both before and after had very MINIMAL EFFECT on reducing muscle soreness.
If you are currently using stretching as a tool to reduce muscle soreness you may want to consider other healthy practices that actually improve recovery such as proper nutrition, sleep and managing stress levels.
Muscle and Tendon Lengthening (flexibility):
Have you ever been told that stretching is necessary to enhance flexibility while increasing range of motion (ROM)?
The main stipulation individuals associate with ROM enhancements is how it increases muscle fibre length, but is this actually the case??
→ According to Konrad et al (2014), after examining effects static stretching had on the range of motion of the gastrocnemius muscle and achilles tendon length, it was concluded that there was improvements to ROM, however, this was not due to modifications to the muscle tendon and/or changes to the fibre length.
So if increases in muscle lengths are out of the picture….
Then how is it that static stretching influences improvements in terms of range of motion????
→ The increased flexibility may be due to the modification of nociceptors nerve endings which positively aid in increasing muscle fibre stretch ability (Jam 2015). In other words, some improvement to ROM can be attributed to an increased ability to stretch and ability to tolerate pain during static stretching (Jam 2015).
Further, it appears that eccentric strength training exercises mechanically alter tendon makeup and can actually increase fascicle length in muscle. These changes transfer into improved flexibility (Jam 2015).
Could Static Stretching still have an upside?
Although there is many common misconceptions about the effects of static stretching, recent evidence could demonstrate a potential upside(s) to chronic static stretching on muscle performance.
At this point there might be some confusion to when the optimal time to implement static stretching is……. Before, During, After??
The answer is simple however still not entirely set in stone.
Mederios & Lima (2017) conducted a systematic review and concluded that static stretching post training COULD stimulate enhancements on muscle performance. However, it is important to understand how the results from the study went both ways in which have demonstrated positive effects of static stretching on muscle performance and half showed no effect (Mederios & Lima 2017).
How does muscle performance benefit in the long run you may ask?
→ The main reasons why muscle performance could benefit from static stretching post exercise is based on the tendency of our muscle-tendon unit to become less stiff as well as through the addition of sarcomeres (tiny units within the muscle fibre) to the muscle fibers themselves (Mederios & Lima 2017).
What does that even mean??
Well, it is thought that when a muscle-tendon unit becomes less stiff, there becomes an advanced ability to accumulate energy and when there’s more energy available to use…..then the body converts this energy into optimal muscle performance (Mederios & Lima 2017). In addition when you add more sarcomeres to a muscle fibre it gets longer and when this happens, it’s ability to shorten and generate more force improves (Mederios & Lima 2017).
SO WHAT IS THE FINAL VERDICT??
→ A review done by Greg Nuckols a master student at the University of North Carolina effectively sums it up…
It is mentioned,
“If you add stretching into your training routine, your best bet is to do it at the end of a training session, or away from your training sessions. Nighttime or early morning is convenient for most people; stretching is a nice way to start your day or to wind down in the evening. To ensure that you don’t wind up spending an obnoxiously long time stretching, it’s probably wise to direct your efforts toward the muscles that feel the tightest or that are most involved in performance of the lifts you want to improve”.
Take Home Points:
- Static Stretching has not been shown as an effective modality for injury prevention, reducing muscle soreness or increasing flexibility through true muscle/tendon lengthening.
- Static Stretching may have impacts on muscle performance through reducing muscle tendon stiffness although much of the research still does not understand the mechanisms of action.
- If you enjoy static stretching, go ahead and do it, but evidence would suggest performing it upon finishing a workout/competition etc is best.
Behm DG, Blazevich AJ, Kay AD, McHugh M (2016) Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab 41:1–11
Chen CH, Nosaka K, Chen HL, Lin MJ, Tseng KW, Chen TC (2011) Effects of flexibility training on eccentric exercise-induced muscle damage. Med Sci Sports Exerc 43:491–500
Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jul 6; (7):CD004577.
Jam, B (2015). Questioning the Use of Static Stretching Before and After Athletic
Activities [Review]. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from http://www.aptei.ca/wp-content/uploads/Stretching-Paper-2015.pdf
Medeiros, D., & Lima, C. (2017). Influence of chronic stretching on muscle performance:Systematic review. Human Movement Science, 54, 220-229. doi:10.1016/j.humov.2017.05.006
Witvrouw E, Danneels L, Asselman P, D’Have T, Cambier D. Muscle flexibility as a risk factor for developing muscle injuries in male professional soccer players: a prospective study. Am J Sports Med 2003; 31:41-46.