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Stretching before exercise impairs muscular performance

Posted on Friday, 12 April, 2013 by anthony

The benefits of pre-exercise stretching has been widely debated and researched over recent years, with most research failing to find any benefit. Despite this stretching is still actively encouraged by many fitness professionals as part of a pre-exercise warm-up routine. Recent studies have provided further evidence that stretching before exercise may not be of benefit and may actually be detrimental to exercise performance.

The first study was a meta-analytical review published in the Scanadian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports (Simic et al., 2013). The researchers analysed 104 studies and found that static stretching negatively affected strength, power and explosive performance. The negative effect of static stretching was not related to fitness level, age or gender. The researchers concluded that static stretches should not be the primary activity of a workout and should be generally avoided.

The second study, published in the Journal of strength and conditioning research (Gergley JC, 2013), compared the effects of active dynamic warm-up with a combination of passive static stretches and the active dynamic workout. The researcher observed significant decreases in 1 repetition maximum barbell squat (~8%) and lower body stability (~22%) following static stretching. The researcher suggested that possible explanations for the negative effects of static stretching could be due to decreased joint stability or impaired neurologic function. It was suggested that intensive stretching should be avoided before lower body training. Instead the researcher suggested that an active dynamic warm-up may be more appropriate – in this study the active dynamic warm-up consisted of resistance exercises (leg extension, leg curl, and barbell squat).

Whilst the studies relate to muscle and strength training they should be applicable to other training areas such as endurance training, team sports, and general gym/fitness activities since muscle strength and power influence a number of performance factors. In fact previous research (Nelson et al., 2005) has shown that static stretching can significantly reduce muscle strength endurance (>25%). In particular static stretching may negatively affect endurance exercise performance by reducing exercise efficiency (Esposito et al., 2012).

Summary of stretching and muscular performance:

Whilst the exact mechanisms by which static stretching negatively affect muscular performance are not fully clear, most research does not support it’s use during the warm-up phase of exercise. The negative effects of stretching appear to affect a wide range of activities from resistance training through to endurance training and in all these activities an active dynamic warm-up appears to be more beneficial. In the case of resistance training this would involve the use of lighter weights or resistance machines to warm up the muscles to be used in the workout. In the case of endurance sports, team sports, or fitness activities light aerobic activities should be the primary focus of the warm-up but you may also wish to include body weight exercise (not to failure – ideally no more than 25-50% of the repetitions required to reach failure) such as partial squats, calf raises, press-ups etc.

My thoughts on pre-exercise stretching:

I stopped utilising pre-exercise stretching around 10 years ago mainly due to its possible implication in reduced exercise economy and haven’t noticed any negatives since. This is not to say that I don’t stretch, I just don’t use static stretching before exercise and tend to reserve it for times when I feel it necessary such as if I have a specific area that feels like it needs stretching or has a reduced range of motion. For me it was a case that my joints were quite mobile anyway and I felt less efficient after stretching and seemed to benefit from eliminating it from my pre-workout routine.

Decreasing your time spent stretching

If you have utilised pre-exercise stretching for a number of years and are worried about whether suddenly stopping pre-exercise stretching may increase your risk of injury you could gradually decrease the time spent stretching over a period of weeks e.g. if you normally complete 3 sets of 30 second stretches per muscle group, you could reduce this to 20 seconds for the first two weeks and then 15 seconds for the next two etc. In the meta-analysis study the researchers observed that the time spent stretching influenced the negative effects of static stretching and therefore any reduction in the time you spend stretching should have a positive effect so if you are reluctant to completely eliminate stretching you may find a benefit from simply reducing the overall time spent stretching.

Stretching references

Esposito F, Cè E, Limonta E. (2012) Cycling efficiency and time to exhaustion are reduced after acute passive stretching administration. Scand J Med Sci Sports. Dec;22(6):737-45. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2011.01327.x. Epub 2011 May 12.

Gergley JC. (2013) Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. J Strength Cond Res. Apr;27(4):973-7. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318260b7ce.

Nelson AG, Kokkonen J, Arnall DA. (2005) Acute muscle stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance. J Strength Cond Res. May;19(2):338-43.

Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G. (2013) Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. Mar;23(2):131-48. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01444.x. Epub 2012 Feb 8.

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