What you need to know about warm-ups before exercising, including whether or not to stretch

July 4, 2022

Static muscular stretching has a terrible reputation after 20 years. Static stretching, which is when we stretch a muscle and then hold it at an extended length for seconds or minutes, has almost entirely been eliminated from the picture as part of any sport or exercise warm-up. This change came about as a result of extensive research showing that static stretching can reduce muscle strength (reflected in activities like lifting weights), power (for example, jump height), running speed, balance, and other capacities for a short period of time after the stretch.

In order to put the data into perspective, the average performance decline (reduction in strength, power, and speed) following static stretching ranges from 3 to 5 percent across all investigations. A 3 to 5 percent loss may not seem like much, but when you consider that sprinter Usain Bolt defeated Justin Gatlin and Andre de Grasse by 0.8 and 1 percent, respectively, at the 2016 Olympics, it is reasonable to conclude that it might have a profound impact. Therefore, it might seem reasonable to take static stretching out of the equation at first glance. However, it appears that many of these studies were not intended to address the specific question of whether stretching has an impact on performance when used as a warm-up, or, at the very least, we may have drawn conclusions that were not supported by the available data.

A second look at the research

Our recent review of the literature revealed that these studies present a different picture. When focusing on studies where participants stretched their muscles as part of a full sport warm-up, that is, when lower-intensity exercise is performed before static stretching lasting less than 60 seconds per muscle and higher-intensity sports-specific exercises are performed after stretching, static stretching within this thorough warm-up has no significant effects on performance. For instance, the average change in sprint speed was -0.15%. Why then have we been advised for the past 20 years that static stretching should be eliminated from the warm-up?

One significant issue is that participants were required to stretch for far longer periods of time in most research trials than most athletes do during a warm-up. Professional athletes may only stretch for 12 to 17 seconds per muscle, on average, but the majority of research studies required participants to stretch each muscle for longer than one minute, with some studies requiring 20 or even 30 minutes of stretching. Additionally, the participants' performances are frequently evaluated shortly after the stretching, whereas athletes always finish additional warm-up and then do other things, like listen to final instructions from coaches, finalize their preparation, and so on. The detrimental effects of static stretching are not observed when these tasks are included in research.

Nocebo effect

It's also crucial to keep in mind that the study participants are frequently college students who have frequently learnt via their studies that static stretching might have a negative impact on performance. In other words, a nocebo (bad placebo) effect could occur. In one study, students were persuaded that stretching would truly enhance performance even though they had no knowledge of static stretching research (they were primed for a placebo effect). After static stretching, this instruction led to an increase in muscle strength.

Therefore, whether stretching is beneficial or detrimental might depend much on the power of the mind. Additionally, when questioned right after a warm-up, athletes who participate in team sports said they felt more likely to perform well when muscular stretching was included compared to when it wasn't. Therefore, getting the brain ready for exercise may be just as crucial as getting the muscles ready.

The case for stretching

Why even include stretching if it might not enhance performance? The most obvious explanation is that stretching lengthens joint range of motion by influencing muscles and the nervous system. That is, there is a greater ability to move fluidly while engaging in activities like sprinting, hurdling, wrestling in difficult postures, doing the splits in dance or gymnastics, playing soccer or hockey, and other sports requiring a wide range of motion.

Additionally, the majority of muscle and tendon injuries take place when an active person stretches their muscles. Stretching a muscle lengthens it and expands the range of motion in a joint while also enabling the muscle to generate more force. According to our research, even studies that demonstrate a reduction of force as evaluated by testing at low muscle lengths exhibit this effect. These modifications might lessen the likelihood of harm.

However, there are even more benefits of muscle stretching to consider. Stretching can be used as a type of self-diagnosis to check for stiffness or tightness in various body parts before or after sports and exercise. Stretching your muscles can also improve the health of your blood vessels and lower blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety. Stretching may therefore be crucial for preserving cardiovascular health and encouraging calm.

So, albeit with some restrictions, static stretching is returned.
When done as part of a thorough warm-up and for a suitable amount of time before exercise, static stretching appears to have more advantages than negatives (less than 60 seconds per muscle group).

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