A lot of us stretch because it’s been programmed into our brains our entire lives. It’s advocated by coaches and personal trainers all over the world, but the problem is that stretching consistently fails to show much benefit in sports medicine research. In fact, there are studies that say it can actually decrease certain measures of athletic performance.
Here’s one example:
In this study, men were asked to perform a 1 rep max squat after different warm up sessions.
One warm up included a dynamic warm up (leg extensions, leg curls, and light squats). The other group used static stretching of the legs in addition to the dynamic warm up. The average exercisers were then asked to perform their 1 rep max squat, and rated their stability during that squat day. Here are the results:
Passive Stretch Group: 8.36% DECREASE in strength and a 22.6% DECREASE in sense of stability.
Another study showed that strength training without stretching before or during a workout showed increased strength output and increased insulin-like growth factor in the blood compared to the groups that stretched before or during a work out. You can check out that study here:
More and more evidence is showing up saying that sitting around and holding a stretch before doing something athletic is not very beneficial for injury prevention, and can actually make you perform a little worse.
The Problem with Static Stretching
When patients in my office ask for advice about stretching, I often try to redirect them towards exercises instead. The problem with stretching is that it seems to affect how effectively a muscle can contract.
While it’s not going to have a huge affect on muscle contraction for things like endurance exercise or high repetition exercise, it can have a significant effect on power output.
That means any situation where you want to have explosiveness and power, you may be limiting yourself by static stretching.
I was talking to local muscle expert Todd Collura of Muscle Activation of South Florida earlier this week, and he gave me a great analogy.
Stretching before working out is like taking a rubber band beyond it’s normal limits. When you stretch a rubber band too much, you start to lose the snapping ability that a tight rubber band once had.
Strength and Conditioning research actually supports this theory to some degree, by showing that chronic stretching can reduce muscle power output for at least 24 hours.
What Should I Do Instead?
Now let me be clear, I’m NOT recommending that someone should simply start throwing a bunch of weight on the bar as soon as you go into the gym. Working out cold is never a good idea.
I’m also not saying that stretching is useless. I encourage people to use some light stretching (less than 30 seconds) to achieve your desired range of motion, and to recover AFTER a hard workout.
But for your pre-workout routine, there are better alternatives for performance and injury protection.
Instead of sitting around and “lengthening” your muscles, you should be getting your body warmed up by doing light activity that is similar to what your workout will look like.
- Starting off with a light jog/stationary bike/jumping jacks to get your heart rate elevated
- Perform 10-12 reps of a light arm or leg exercise depending on what your workout is going to target. i.e. – do some push ups before you bench press or do some air squats/lunges before you work out legs
- Perform some dynamic stretches and light mobility just so you can get your body in the ideal range of motion before activity.
- Begin light workload using near maximal muscle contraction for each rep at light weight. Experiment on yourselves.
Try picking a day of the week where you stretch before you do your bench press reps, and try it again the week after with no stretching at all. See how it feels and let me know what you think.
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