But what is the answer?
There has been a hell of a lot of debate about stretching and its effects and role in injury prevention recently, with many debates and discussions on it. Thing such as should we stretch before or after exercise? What's the best way to stretch? And how long should we stretch for?
All these questions seem to have multiple answers with confusing and conflicting claims and counterclaims, leaving most of us none the wiser. This uncertainty has also created a few heated disagreements between physios, coaches and sports scientists as we all think we have the best answer.
So this is my quick, simple review of a few of these questions on stretching based on the current research, as well as my own personal experience, views and opinions?
What type of stretching is best?
Firstly, I am only going to look at two forms of stretching, static and dynamic. These are the type that most of us do regularly and know well, and don't need any assistance from anyone else. The other types of stretching such as PNF, hold/relax are usually more suited for the physios treatment room.
What is static stretching?
This is the type of stretch where you elongate a muscle and hold it there for a period of time, such as the hamstring stretch you often see being done by leaning forward keeping the leg straight! (I hate this stretch for hamstrings but thats for another blog) or the common calf stretch by placing the foot behind you
What is dynamic stretching?
This type of stretching uses movement and momentum of the limb or trunk to move the muscle from one end of range to the other end of range, its best performed slow and controlled, not vigorous or bouncy, thats sometimes known as ballisitic stretching. An example of dynamic stretching for thr hamstrings is when you see a runner swinging the leg forwards and backwards
Which type of stretching is better?
Well it depends on what the goal is and what you want to achieve? Each type of stretch has pro's and cons, and both are thought to be suited for two different purposes.
In a nutshell it's now believed by most that static stretching should not be used just prior to exercise or sports as it can effect your performance. Instead dynamic stretching is thought to be better for pre exercise activity. But static stretching is still considered to be better than dynamic stretching for improving range of movement and maintaining flexibility in general.
But is this true?
Well research has indeed found that static stretching can reduce strength, power and performance (essential for most sports). A recent meta analysis (review of all the research on a subject) by Simic et al (2012) looked at 104 studies on the subject of pre exercise static stretching and concluded…
“… the usage of static stretching as the sole activity during warm-up routine should generally be avoided”
However, the key word in that conclusion is 'SOLE' and this seems to have been conveniently overlooked by all the anti static stretching protestors out there.
Yes the review found a reduction in strength, power, and explosive performance in those who statically stretched before exercise. But the effects were small (although statistically significant) being between 5.4% – 1.9%. So unless your are a high level professional athlete you are unlikely to notice these reductions. Its also worth noting that these negative effects are in fact negligible if the stretch was kept under 45 seconds (which most stretches are) and the negative effects where only short lived, with things returning to normal after just a 5-10 minute period after the stretching. It also goes on to conclude that short static stretching is actually recommended for activities that involve slower eccentric contractions, or sports that require greater ranges of movement such as gymnastics, marital arts etc. Finally it's also worth remembering that ALL these studies measured tests of performance, not acutal sporting performance, making any true identificarion if negative effect questionable.
Now what about the benefits of dynamic stretching before sports? Well again another systematic review done by Behm et al (2011) stated
“Dynamic stretching has been shown to either have no effect or may augment subsequent performance, especially if the duration of the dynamic stretching is prolonged”
Again the key word here is MAY, again overlooked by the anti static stretching pedants who insist dynamic stretching is the ONLY way to prepare for exercise or sport
Finally this study by Behm concluded
“Generally, a warm-up to minimize impairments and enhance performance should be composed of a submaximal intensity aerobic activity followed by large amplitude dynamic stretching and then completed with sport-specific dynamic activities. Sports that necessitate a high degree of static flexibility should use short duration static stretches with lower intensity stretches in a trained population to minimize the possibilities of impairments”
I interpret this very sensible conclusion as saying a combination of both static and dynamic stretching for most sports seems to be the answer, with the emphasis on the type of sport being the guiding factor as to which type of stretching should be done. Not that one type of stretch over the other is best.
So what about stretching to reduce risk of injury?
The evidence for both dynamic and static stretches to reduce the incidence of injury is 'inconclusive' (just as most things are in the injury prevention research world) a study by McHugh et al (2010) on the role of stretching and injury prevention concluded
“With respect to the effect of pre-participation stretching on injury prevention a limited number of studies of varying quality have shown mixed results”
Basically meaning we don't know?
But again common sense clearly has to be used, and preparing your body for the sport or exercise its about to face can only be a good thing.
Each sport is different, so each warm up will be different, with different emphasis on amount of things and intensity to stretch or not to stretch. This will be on an individual to individual basis.
There is no one magic warm up routine. There is no one type of stretching better than the other!
However, when it comes to stretching and warming up it seems the research is advising us to spend time doing predominately dynamic stretching and low intensity aerobic activity similar to the sport or exercise, but, if your sport requires large amplitude movements then include some short duration static stretches as well.
Do we even need to stretch or warm up at all?
This may seem a controversial, and even a crazy and potentially risky suggestion, but I know many, many people that throw on their trainers and run, me included. I never stretch before my runs, and only do a few calf stretches after for about 30 secs once in a while after runs.
I also know of loads of weekend footballers, rugby players etc whose idea of a warm up is a pee behind the goal posts before kick off, and they don't seem to suffer any more lack of performance or injuries when compared to those that go through a comprehensive warm up routine.
Ok so the weekend warriors and myself can not really be classed as high level athletes, but it does raise some intriguing doubts over the effects of warm up.
So why do we bother?
Well, its usually out of habit, routine or because of ingrained myths and fears installed in us that the body is fragile and needs coaxing into action.
This notion is flawed, in my opinion, the human body is inherently reslient and has a remarkable capacity for adaptation to activity.
However, with all that being said I'm not going to suddenly start recommending that everybody stops doing any form of warm up before sport, maybe that's my own ingrained beleifs, or just an adverse risk to legal suits from all of you stop warming up and getting injured!
So I do recommend some warm up before sport.
How long should you warm up for?
This is a question I get asked a lot, and unfortunately the research here is also inconclusive, as usual. However, after working in a variety of sports I tend to use a set of broad rules of how long a warm up should last dependant of the activity.
For,example, I usually recommend to spend either 25% or 50% of your total planned activity time warming up, based on whether your activity or sport is high or low intensity in nature.
For example, if a low intensity jog for 30 minutes is planned, I suggest a warm up lasting for 25% of the time, so about 7 minutes. However, if you have a 30 minute high intensity, multiple direction session planned, I recommend you increase the warm up time to about 50%, so approximately 15 minutes in total.
Now I know this may seem like a long time, but Imthink its worth it, and I do cap the maximum time for any warm up to about 15-20 minutes, as even the longest sporting events such as marathons don't need anymore than that!
Now although I have said earlier that I don't stretch or warm up before my usual (very) low intensity runs, I do practice what I preach if I am going to an activity that involves high (ish) intensity such as when I play the odd game of rugby now and then, or do a sprint interval training session.
What routine you do varies highly dependant on what you have planned, for example if it's sprint intervals in a straight line then it will be progressive running drills and plyometrics in a single plane of direction with lots of dynamic hamstring and hip flexor movements. If however its a game of rugby, it will incorporate more multidirectional drills as well as warming up other areas such as the shoulders and the neck, not just the legs.
Static stretching does have a role to play, and it can be included in to a warm up program without any significant fears of negative side effects as often being reported…
But, it is probably best to do predominantly dynamic stretching before most exercise and perhaps leave most of the static stretching for between your exercise sessions and/or in the physio room. However, if you have always stretched this way in the past and have had no problems and feel it helps you then please, please continue, also if you routinely don't do any warm up or stretching before exercise and want to continue this way then I think that's perfectly ok too.
Finally, if you want to find the best warm up routine I'm afraid to say that there is no one size fits all program or technique that works better than any other. Its pretty much down to trial and error to see what feels right for you, it's no more scientific than that, no matter what some fussy physio, silly sports scientist or cantankerous coach tells you, do what feels right for you.
As always thanks for reading and enjoy your sport!