To stretch or not to stretch? Is it even a question?

To stretch or not to stretch? Is it even a question?

by Kristin Williams, PT, DPT

Over the last 25 years or so, there has been a debate in the literature about whether or not you should stretch before exercising. Back in my early athletic years, the thing to do before any sports activity was static stretching. We’d run a lap or two to warm up beforehand and then everyone hit the grass and did static stretching for 10-15 minutes. Around the time I was graduating from PT school, the general opinion was changing, and static stretching before exercise was becoming all but taboo. However, it remained an integral part of a treatment session, and any time I would stretch someone on the table, they would always tell me how great it felt and how they “wished they could take me home with them and do it every day”. Taking the evidence and my own professional experience into account, my opinion of static stretching began to evolve to a place where I still believed it had a place in people’s lives, but as part of a bigger picture. Just recently, I did a literature review of stretching to back up this claim and was pleased by what I found. 

History tells us that people have been stretching for thousands of years and in many cultures. From the World Wars until the 1990s, the general belief was that prolonged static stretching would improve athletic performance by increasing flexibility and range of motion and thereby improving movement economy. However, by the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was widespread evidence of the potential harmful effects of static stretching. A meta-analysis of the literature conducted on 104 studies in 2013 reported that prolonged static stretching negatively affected maximal strength and power performances, no matter the participant’s age, gender, or fitness level. Based on these results and others, several leading medical platforms changed their recommendations and stated that static stretching should be eliminated from any warm-up routine. Soon everyone was focused on dynamic stretching alone before an athletic endeavor.

Nevertheless, I continued to believe there was a place for stretching in fitness and rehabilitation. In fact, in the summer of 2016, I created the Stretch class we now teach on LYT Daily in response to the very reactions I was receiving from clients and patients alike about how good they felt after being stretched. My goal with stretching was rarely to increase flexibility per se, but more as an assessment of soft tissue resistance and available joint range of motion. I also recognized the benefit that the sensation of stretching provides to the brain via mechanoreceptors in the muscles and tendons. I believed it was a great way for a person to learn more about their body and the story it was telling them within its tissues.   

It seems the literature wasn’t far behind me. By 2019, the evidence was finding that static stretching itself was not the culprit of decreased strength and power. It was the duration of the stretch that determined whether or not there were negative effects of static stretching prior to athletic activity. Across the board, these studies showed that stretches held for 60 seconds or less had no negative impact on power or strength, whereas stretches over 60 seconds did. So why does duration matter? In stretches held for over 60 seconds, there are short-term changes in the neuromuscular response, including decreased motor unit activation (strength) and decreased maximal voluntary isometric torque (power). There is also evidence that long-duration static stretching decreases muscle-tendon unit stiffness, which affects the length-tension relationship of the muscle, and thereby compromises the muscle’s ability to generate force/torque. However, in the same stretches held for 60 seconds or less, no significant changes in motor until activation, maximal voluntary torque, or muscle tendon unit stiffness are seen. 

Today, many researchers are recommending once again that we include short-duration static stretching in a pre-exercise routine because it has the potential to lower the risk of sustaining musculotendinous injuries and does not have the previously perceived negative effect on strength and power. In addition to this, one study, in particular, reported their participants felt they were “more likely to perform well when stretching was part of the warm-up”, indicating a positive psychological benefit of stretching and an important component of optimal performance. My opinion on the matter is unchanged. I utilize static stretching both to treat my own injuries and to keep tabs on the general condition of the muscles, joints, and surrounding connective tissues over time and following activity. Combining regular gentle stretching with dynamic movement like we do in the LYT Method is an ideal way to move better and feel better longer. We get the best of both worlds, keeping our tissues strong and healthy while maintaining a steady conversation with our bodies through observation. If you’ve never tried one of my Stretch classes, you should join me or one of the other trained LYT Instructors on Saturday mornings from 9:30-10:30 am ET. You won’t regret it! Until then, I’ll see you on the mat.

Xoxo,

Kristin

Chaabene H, Behm DG, Negra Y, Granacher U. Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats. Front Physiol. 2019 Nov 29;10:1468.

Behm, David G. The science and physiology of flexibility and stretching: implications and applications in sports performance and health. Routledge, 2018.

Blazevich A. J., Gill N. D., Kvorning T., Kay A. D., Goh A. G., Hilton B., et al. (2018). No effect of muscle stretching within a full, dynamic warm-up on athletic performance. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 50, 1258–1266. 

Simic L., Sarabon N., Markovic G. (2013). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports 23, 131–148.

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