On the way to church the other morning I was listening to the radio left on from the night before. A lady was discussing gardening and movement for the elderly. She very quickly began discussing how important it was for the elderly to stretch before they start gardening to prevent an injury. Immediately I began replying that stretching does not help prevent injury or warm you up. My wife made sure to inform me that the lady on the radio could not hear me. Though I was keenly aware of this fact I was frustrated with the persistence of this myth. As a collegiate strength coach for over 20 years, I continually heard coaches, athletic trainers and athletes talk about stretching like it was the holy grail of injury prevention, recovery, performance enhancement, warm up or soreness cure. At the beginning of a new semester, I would invariably hear, and athletic trainer or sport coach tell their athletes that “you are going to get sore now so make sure you are stretching” Or they wanted to add stretching to before or after a practice or training sessions in an attempt to prevent injury or assist in “recovery”. I even heard athletes’ express guilt and shame after an injury occurred stating “I guess I should have stretched more.” I cannot recall how many times I have seen youth sport coaches having their teams “warm up” by beginning with a stretch. I am amazed at how long these myths have persisted, but I guess I shouldn’t be. I understand youth coaches who have not studied this and are going by what they did when they were younger or what they have been told but when “professionals” at the collegiate level or on radio continue to recommend it I get a little perturbed.
1.Static Stretching Does Not Warm Up the Muscles
Static stretching does not warm up the muscles or your body for activity. The best thing you can do to prepare for an activity/practice/game is to move your body at a lower intensity with specific movements related to the activity and gradually increase their intensity. Now many “experts” will make a warmup way too complex and spend 30 minutes on 20 different drills or stretches in order to begin a workout. It does not need to be complex. The main goals of the warmup are to increase heart rate, blood flood, core body temperature and prepare mentally for the workout. Static stretching does not do any of those unless you are visualizing the workout while stretching then you could argue for the mental prep. If you are a busy athlete of aging it is a challenge to find time to train so you want bang for your buck. Movement and dynamic mobility exercises will fit the bill, save time, and hit all the goals of the warmup. Before I lift, I begin with some body weights squats for a few sets and then do a short barbell warm up with the empty bar. It takes me all of 5 minutes and then I begin with my warmup sets of my first exercise. By then I am beginning to sweat indicating that increase in HR, Blood flow and body temp. Sitting on the floor stretching will not accomplish these.
2.Stretching does not help prevent injury.
Some people will stretch with such religious conviction like they are trying to become “…Gumby Dammit!” presumably to prevent injury but the data is not on their side.
An Study in 2014 by Lauersen et al, entitled “The Effectiveness of Exercise Interventions to Prevent Sports Injuries.” In the Journal of Sports Medicine concluded.” Despite a few outlying studies, consistently favorable estimates were obtained for all injury prevention measures except for stretching. Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved.” The analysis included 26,610 subjects and 3464 injuries. They found no benefit to stretching but strength training significantly reduced both acute and overuse injuries.
Strength training is where it is at and movement in general in becoming more injury resistant. Other studies have shown that strength training can decrease the recovery time when an injury does occur. Still other research has shown that strength training can improve range of motion as well. This makes sense since strength training is loaded movement. This flies in the face of another myth ‘that strength training makes you muscle bound, stiff and less flexible. Properly done strength training through a full range of motion can enhance mobility.
This looks like some pretty good shoulder, hip and ankle mobility to me.
The theory that increasing range of motion will prevent an injury if you get in an end range position or out of position is the only one that seems plausible to me. However, most injuries are not a result of a muscle being stretched beyond its end range.
3.Static Stretching does not improve performance.
In this 2014 Textbook chapter entitled “INJURY PREVENTION AND MANAGEMENT AMONG ATHLETIC POPULATIONS” – Written by Kieran O’Sullivan et al in 2014 concludes.
1. “Acute static stretching for greater than 45 seconds should be avoided immediately before participation in activities where strength or power are important, as performance is likely to be reduced without any clear benefits to justify its continued use.”
2. “Shorter durations of static stretching are also hard to justify immediately before participation in activities where strength or power are important given the potential for decreased performance and lack of clear benefits.”
3. “In endurance activities, acute static stretching is hard to justify immediately before participation as performance may be reduced with no clear benefits to justify its continued use.”
4. “Sustained static stretching is not associated with as clear a decline in performance as acute static stretching and may in fact enhance strength and power compared to not performing any exercise program. However, since static stretching is far less effective than strength training in enhancing strength and power and it is unclear whether adding static stretching might reduce the strength gains achieved, it is hard to justify its continued use.”
5. “Sustained static stretching does not appear to enhance gait economy, nor consistently enhance endurance performance. In contrast, strength training enhances endurance performance.”
I don’t really think stretching before will decrease performance for most sports either because most people do not hold a stretch that long or the sport/activity is long enough where any effect would be negated. However, If I am performing a vertical jump, Olympic or Power Lifting or a short sprint I would not recommend it. For other sports why are you doing it before if it will not warm you up, prevent injury or improve performance?
4.Stretching Does not prevent muscle soreness.
Many people believe that stretching will help prevent soreness after a workout or at least help decrease soreness after it has set in. This has some plausibility as you can feel looser and less sore after a stretching session but it is only temporary and does not decrease the amount of soreness. This feeling occurs because you are doing something. Think about the last time you were sore, and you stood up out of your chair or out of your car. You were stiff, sore, and moving slowly. However, after a few minutes of walking you “loosened up” and though still sore you did not feel as sore or stiff. When you sit back down you are quickly sore again. Painscience.com has many great resources on this topic and states.
“Unfortunately, the evidence strongly suggests that stretching does not prevent DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Many studies have shown that nothing short of amputation can prevent DOMS212223 — and certainly not stretching”
5.Stretching Does not improve recovery from an injury.
I guess the thinking is that if stretching can prevent injury, then it can also somehow help recover if an injury occurs. As we have seen it does not help prevent injury so it can’t really help recover from it as well. Here again general movement and appropriate strength training (modified) for the specific injury are better choices for recovery from injury. An argument can be made that if you believe it works for you and makes you feel better then it could help you. If you personally want to do it great, knock yourself out. I just don’t like “experts” telling people they should stretch before gardening or coaches adding additional time to student-athletes already busy schedules. We need people to increase activity and exercise. Creating fear of injury, adding roadblocks to starting a program and wasting valuable training time is not helpful. Getting moving and starting some form of strength training will be the most bang for your buck. If you want to attend yoga class or sit and static stretch more power to ya, but let’s not stretch the truth and pretend you are preventing injury, improving performance or recovery.
If you would like a deeper dive into these areas check out this excellent resource at Painscience.com