Should static stretching really be banished from warm-ups?
By Heidi Dawson
Static stretching has received a lot of bad press recently. This is due to a whole range of studies that have demonstrated reductions in strength, power and speed immediately following static stretching. For this reason, trainers and therapists stopped using it as part of a pretraining and competition warm-up routine. Instead, dynamic stretching has become the mainstay of an athlete’s preparation.
While the volumes of research out there backing up this point should be taken into account, does static stretching really have no place in a warm-up anymore? Or should we be looking a little more closely at some of the details of these latest developments and deciding if the potential negatives outweigh the positives.
After all, is avoiding static stretching to prevent a slight decrease in performance worth it when the same stretching method could decrease the risk of muscle strain? This is summed up in a review article, “There is evidence that preparticipation stretching is beneficial for reducing muscle strains.”
There is some, albeit limited, research out there that demonstrates that there may be a time and a place for static stretching in preparation for sporting performance. How and why static stretching is being performed is important, and I believe that in some cases, used in the right way, static stretching could still be beneficial.
It’s an age old argument, but it seems that the question, “How long should I hold a stretch for?” still doesn’t have a definitive answer. But, in the case of warming up, a recent review of research found that stretches held for less than 30 seconds were far less likely to cause a decrease in sporting performance than stretches held for a minute or longer.
When thinking about a typical warm-up routine, it is rare that a single stretch is held for any longer than this anyway. In addition, previous research has shown that stretches held for 20-30 seconds result in increases of range of motion similar to if the same stretch were held for 60 seconds.
Many studies that condemned static stretching used a methodology that involved the participants performing the “performance” activity immediately after stretching. This doesn’t mimic the typical pattern of a warm-up followed by athletic performance, where there is often a gap of several minutes between warm-up completion and performance.
Some authors are now recommending waiting a period of at least five minutes between finishing static stretching and beginning athletic performance. This is backed up by studies from 2009 and 2010, which looked at varying protocols using combinations of static stretching, dynamic routines and sports specific practice. Both recommended that static stretching can be used prior to competition with no adverse effects on performance, provided there is a gap of at least five minutes between completing static stretching and commencing competition.
The aim of the 2009 study was primarily to look at the effect of warm-up routines involving submaximal cardiovascular exercise, and then either static or dynamic stretching, followed by a sports-specific skill warm-up, on performance. While dynamic stretching displayed better performances immediately following stretching, this improvement was not apparent when testing was repeated after the skill section. This backs up the previous argument about a time delay, but also suggests that static and dynamic stretching could be used together, as part of the same warm-up routine, if necessary.
Look at the Individual
So, when is it necessary? Personally, I believe static stretching still has its place in a warm-up routine in some situations. For example, where a known restriction or old injury affects joint range of motion, static stretching could be used prior to a dynamic program to help promote flexibility in the targeted muscle group. Research from 2009 demonstrated that static stretching was more effective at increasing hamstring muscle flexibility than dynamic stretching, which actually reduced range of motion.
This testing was performed across two groups — one containing individuals with a previous hamstring injury (12-1 month postinjury and reduced range of motion) and the second using only individuals with no history of injury. Results also showed that those with a history of injury demonstrated a slightly larger increase in flexibility following static stretching than those without injury. However, the difference was concluded to be statistically insignificant. Further research in this area would be beneficial.
Similarly, static stretching may also be of benefit, where an athlete is stiff from previous competition — as may occur in multiday events or those with a tight schedule. In this case, some short duration static stretching may be used to prepare the muscles for the next stage of competition.
The research above demonstrates that to say static stretching has no place in a sporting warm-up is a little short-sighted. For a healthy athlete demonstrating no restrictions, this may be the case. But for those with previous injury problems and reduced flexibility, static stretching, if used appropriately, can be beneficial in improving range of motion and potentially preventing further injury.
Heidi Dawson is a graduate sports rehabilitator based in the United Kingdom. She runs two successful sports injury clinics and the injury website Rehab4Runners.