In the past, everyone was taught to stretch before engaging in physical activity. Now, however, researchers say that certain popular stretching routines are not only ineffective as warm-ups but can sometimes leave you even more vulnerable to injury.
There are two types of stretching techniques. Dynamic stretches are aerobic exercises of light-to-moderate intensity that stimulate blood flow and have a warming effect on the muscles you plan to use during your exercise. Static stretches require extending an arm, leg or other body part to the point of tension and holding that position for a period of time, often a full minute or more.
Only dynamic stretches should be performed before engaging in physical activity, because they mimic the movements we make during rigorous exercise and warm up the body. Ideally, your warm-up routine should consist of dynamic stretches specifically targeted to the muscles you will be using in your activity. For instance, light jogging in place is a good preparation for a run, and gentle arm swings or shoulder rolls can effectively prepare a swimmer for a meet.
Static stretches done before physical activity negatively affect performance and increase the risk of injury. A 2013 review of 104 studies, conducted at the University of Zagreb in Croatia, found that static stretching before a workout reduced muscle strength by as much as 5.5% and decreased explosive muscular performance—such as jumping as high or running as hard as you can—by almost 3%. The stretched muscle becomes less responsive and may remain weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching—clearly, not the way an athlete wants to begin a workout. Thus, static stretches are best performed after physical activity, to promote flexibility and range of motion while minimizing post-activity soreness.
Stretching technique also matters. Stretch only as far as you can without pain. Hold the position without bouncing, and take deep breaths to relax the body and safely increase the stretch.
When performed appropriately, stretching can make your workout more effective and keep you healthy. Unsure about which stretches are best for you? After we review your physical shape, lifestyle and the activities you participate in, we can design a program of stretches to help you maintain peak performance while avoiding injury that might sideline your physical activity altogether.