[Vincent Ragland is in his last semester as a student-athlete at East Carolina University, pursuing a Health Fitness Specialist Degree. He is currently an Athletic Development Intern at the Athletic Lab]
For many years, athletes across the world were taught the importance of static stretching before explosive exercises, such as sprinting, jumping, and throwing. The thought process behind it was that static stretching was a good way to loosen the muscles before exercise and help prevent injuries. Static stretching is, in essence, holding a stationary position and stretching a particular muscle further than its resting length. Some of the more common static stretches include the butterfly stretch, which stretches the inner thighs and hips, and the seated hamstring stretch. Muscles are usually stretched to a point where discomfort is reached, and are usually about 20 – 30 seconds in length.
As time went on, researchers ultimately began to discover that static stretching had no noticeable benefits in terms of power output. Instead of better preparing an athlete for athletic activity, static stretching simply elongates and relaxes the muscles, it doesn’t get them ready to generate force (Lebo et. Al 2014). In fact, having a small amount of tension and tightness in the muscles helps them to contract and produce more power. By doing static stretches before power based movements, athletes are stretching some of the desired power out of their muscles.
I’m sure a lot of you all reading this blog have heard the phrase “a longer muscle is a stronger muscle”. Coaches and athletes should be sure not to take this statement out of context. Static stretching does, in fact, lengthen the muscle. As previously stated, muscles need some tension and tightness in them to produce maximal power output Since static stretching before exercise inhibits power output, it is best served to do this type of stretching post exercise. By consistently stretching post exercise, over time the muscles will elongate, without compromising the power output that is necessary for explosive activities. Through consistently improving their flexibility and mobility, a person will inherently increase their range of motion and performance.
Pros and Cons of Static Stretching
Static stretching is not all bad, and as is the case with most things, there are multiple pros and cons associated with static stretching. Static stretching is relatively safe and simple. Since the individual stretching has total control over how far they stretch a muscle, they do not have to worry about pushing the limit too far on how far they stretch a muscle. In addition to being safe, it is a great way to improve an athlete’s range of motion. On the other hand, static stretching reduces a muscles capacity & explosiveness. In nearly all sports, some form of explosive activity is required, and that is only inhibited by this type of stretching. Even if an athlete only does a small amount of static stretching after a short aerobic warm up, they are cooling off the body’s core temperature, and ultimately defeating the purpose of their aerobic warm up.
The decreased power output that is associated with static stretching comes from the muscle damages that muscles go through when being stretched. (McDaniel et al. 2008). A study done by Joshua Aman and Bryan Christensen examined the power output differences between three types of warm-ups: a dynamic warm up, static stretching, and PNF stretching. In this experiment, the participants were split into 3 groups, based on the type of warm up that they would do. A vertical jump test was performed on all of the subjects 3 minutes after their warm up and 20 minutes after their warm up. While a vertical jump test may seem to be somewhat of a general test, it is one of the best and most common ways to test power and explosion. The dynamic warm up group showed a 10% higher average power output compared to the other groups (Aman and Christensen, 2009). Not only were the athletes able to produce more power in short bursts, but they were also able to consistently exhibit a higher power output over an extended period of time.
The Alternative to Static Stretching
The simple solution is to just focus on dynamic warm-ups before power based exercising and to save the static stretching for a post exercise type of activity. During static stretching, the heart rate does not increase, as opposed to a dynamic warm up, which increases the heart rate. Along with increasing a person’s heart rate, a dynamic warm up is supposed to increase range of motion and improve blood to the body before exercise A dynamic warm-up, which involves general movement preparations, and then gradually progresses to event specific movements, is the best way to prepare the muscles for a power based activity.
In a dynamic warm up, it is important to warm up for at least 10 – 20 minutes and target all major muscle groups. The muscle groups may include but are not limited to, the quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, calves, shoulders, and trunk muscles. It is also important to make sure that the athletes are doing each movement the correct way. Doing movements the wrong way can increase the chance of injury, and also it trains the body into doing improper movements. The movements that are done as a part of the warm can be great practice for the movements that will be emulated in the actual sport or activity. Coaches and athletes should even add some sport specific movements into their dynamic warm up. For a sprinter, this may include high knees or dribble runs. For a football player, this may include some backpedaling drills or side shuffles.
These guidelines are not just for athletes; they can be for anyone who is about to participate in some form of explosive activity. Instead of doing standing lunge stretches and seated hamstring stretching, coaches should have their athletes do things such as walking lunges and walking hamstring scoops, just to add a little movement and mobility to a warm up that would otherwise be stagnant.
Out With the Old
As research has now proven, static stretching before running or explosive exercises is no longer the way to go. If you’re a coach and you’re having your athletes do static stretches before they run or compete, I would highly recommend that you adjust your stretching methodology. If you are an athlete and you’re doing a number of static stretches before you compete, you may not ever be able to reach your maximum power potential. Save your static stretching routines for after your activities, and instead, get your muscles ready to reach their potential with an excellent dynamic warm up.
Rebello, G. S. (2013). Dynamic versus static stretching in the sports warm-up. Http://isrctn.org/>. doi:10.1186/isrctn92190114
E. (2014, September 24). How To Stretch Properly: The Do’s And Don’ts Of Stretching. Retrieved June 22, 2017, from https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/how-to-stretch-properly-the-dos-and-donts-of-stretching.html
Yamaguchi, T., & Ishii, K. (2005). Effects Of Static Stretching For 30 Seconds And Dynamic Stretching On Leg Extension Power. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3), 677-683. doi:10.1519/00124278-200508000-00032
Stretching Tips for Athletes: Dynamic and Static Stretching. (2011, June 20). Retrieved June 19, 2017, from https://www.hss.edu/conditions_stretching-tips-athletes-dynamic-static.asp