Ask anyone involved in any kind of sport or exercise if they stretch and you’re likely to hear one of 2 answers: “Yes, religiously” or “No, not as much as I should!”
So what should we be doing and when should we be doing it? Well, in this blog we’ll have a look at when to stretch, along with some examples of stretching for different muscle groups at different times (and while we’re at it, we’ll define the various kinds of stretch too).
Types of stretching
Static stretching is just what it says on the tin – stretching and holding in one position (see our “models” on the left). Usually the hold is for a standard 20 or 30 seconds, but some people like to hold a static stretch using breaths as a measure (e.g. 5 inhales and exhales for one stretch).
Dynamic stretching is stretching while moving. This is a gentle “swing” through your full range of motion, but without pushing too hard at the end of the stretch. For example jogging forward kicking your heels up to your bottom is a good dynamic quad stretch that doesn’t push the muscle beyond its natural range.
Ballistic stretching is holding a muscle at its maximum length and “bouncing” it to try to increase that length. It is almost never recommended, as it can actually cause muscles to tighten or even tear as they are over-stretched. Imagine trying to touch your toes and consistently jerking you fingers closer to the floor each time. Your hamstrings would very likely complain with this movement!
When is best?
Now we’ve covered stretching terms, but when should we carry out each different type of stretching?
Traditionally, people stretched statically before any kind of exercise, but this has been shown to do more harm than good. Herda and colleagues conducted a study on men in their 20s using methods to measure hamstring strength after different kinds of stretching. They found that the muscles could generate more power after dynamic stretching than following static stretching.
Another study by Wallmann and colleagues in 2012 looked at stretching the hip flexors (iliopsoas muscle) before a sprint, and how much difference this made to the performance of healthy recreational runners. Without stretching, the subjects ran the fastest. The next fastest runs were after the dynamic stretching, and the slowest runs were after static stretching. So it seems that not stretching at all before an activity could be best – but the key part is the warm-up and it’s important to note that in this study, the runners all had a warm-up first.
When Samson and his colleagues looked at different warm-ups and different types of stretching, they found that an activity-specific warm-up improved sprint times more than a general warm-up. They also found that static stretching increased the range of movement in the subjects better than dynamic stretching (but didn’t improve speed).
So in short, static stretching before exercise can actually worsen performance in sports that require explosive movements like sprinting (and can actually decrease your muscle power by around 3%), and dynamic stretching has been shown to be not quite as detrimental but can still negatively affect performance.
None of this looks particularly encouraging for stretching pre-exercise at all, does it?
Here’s where the warm-up comes in.
Don’t be confused – even dynamic stretching does not equal a warm-up as such.
The best warm-ups consist of an activity-specific and aerobic exercise to get your blood pumping and start your body moving in the way your intended exercise program is designed. Your muscles, nerves and other soft tissues need blood (and its nutrients and oxygen) in order to work, and a warm-up will help deliver these slowly at first, then more efficiently so that you can reach your maximum performance during your workout. Warming up also lubricates your joints, and reduces the risk of your muscles becoming prematurely fatigued.
So for instance a sprinter might do a warm-up of walking, lunges, jogging and then running before finally engaging in sprinting. A footballer might do some jogging followed by some mid-height kicks or mid-paced direction changes with some ball work to warm them up for a game.
So should we stretch after a warm-up? Well, you could do, but the point of the warm-up is to get your blood pumping so your body is ready for exercise. If you have to stop in order to stretch, your heart rate will slow again, defeating the purpose. You could do a second warm-up before exercising but not all of us have the time for that!
Does stretching have any use at all?
Yes indeed! This might seem like an anti-stretching article, but stretching can have fantastic benefits. Right after you cool down (again, doing the same sorts of activity-specific movements as in your warm-up), you should stretch. This should help your soft tissues get rid of the waste products built up during exercise, as well as return your physiological responses (metabolic, heart and breathing rates etc) to normal. Stretching probably doesn’t prevent injury as such, nor will it prevent a loss of power that generally follows on the next 2-3 days after a good workout, but it can have an effect on improving your muscle soreness on the days following your workout (especially in your abdomen and back), which can be a huge drawback to exercise. Plus it’s a nice relaxing way to finish a session.
If you want to improve your flexibility in general, you could take part in a yoga class (and don’t be fooled by its laid-back reputation – depending on the teacher and the type of yoga, it can be pretty hard work!) Pilates is also an excellent way of improving your joint range of motion, your muscle suppleness and flexibility in a low-impact way. But make sure before you do any static stretching that you don’t intend on running any personal best sprints straight after!
As with starting any form of exercise, particularly if you are entirely new to it, seek advice from a registered health professional before you begin. If you’d like to ask us a question, or book in for one of our prehabilitation appointments, please call us on 0141 2372 721 or browse our website for more information www.firstclassphysio.co.uk.