Flexibility and Stretching: Are we wasting our time?
Flexibility is referred to as the range of motion (ROM) around a joint. Flexibility is an important aspect of any programme, especially when the dynamic activity is demanding. Flexibility can be influenced by many factors including gender, age, body composition and temperature.
Often the terms ‘flexibility’ and ‘stretching’ are used interchangeably. Stretching defines how an increased ROM is obtained, and enhanced flexibility is the outcome. There are many forms of stretching, with static stretching (holding a stretch for a period of time) and dynamic stretching (actively moving a joint through your ROM) being a common inclusion in programmes. With increased flexibility, there will be less muscle “tightness”, muscle imbalances may be avoided and there will be more freedom to move. However, questions often arise around the topic of stretching; when, how and for how long should we stretch?
Traditionally, people accepted that static stretching (e.g. holding a quad stretch) as part of a warm up was a method of improving performance and preventing injury. However, there is little evidence to back up these claims; current literature suggests that static stretching before exercise does not reduce overall injury rates (1-3). In fact, pre-exercise static stretching has been shown to reduce force production (4), strength and power (5-6). There is some evidence to suggest that static stretching may reduce musculotendinous injuries (injuries to muscles or tendons) (1) and muscle injuries associated with running and sprinting (7). As a result, including a small amount of static stretching in the warm up alongside dynamic stretching could provide some benefit.
Dynamic stretching (e.g. walking lunges) should be favoured over static stretching as part of a warm up for most dynamic activities. A dynamic warm up can improve performance including strength, power and agility (8-9), and has been shown to increase sprint and jump performance when compared to a static stretching warm up (10). Recently, foam rolling has been suggested as a warm up activity when seeking flexibility. It has been shown to be more effective than both static and dynamic stretching for increasing flexibility before exercise, without affecting muscle strength (11).
So, generally a warm up should be specific to your intended activity; begin with simple movements to increase the heart rate and body temperature (e.g. cycling, skipping). The key muscle groups should then be activated and mobilised through dynamic movements related to the activity that will follow (e.g. squats, walkouts). Lastly, intensity should be increased to the level that you will be participating at; adding resistance. In the gym, warm up sets with less load and resistance band work could be included before working sets.
Before exercise, the aim of the stretching is to warm up the muscles and get them ready for an exercise session. After exercise, we aim to relax the muscles and restore pre-exercise range of motion – generally where static stretching comes in to play. Joint flexibility can be improved with static stretching. It has been shown that stretching with a higher intensity (stretching to the point before pain is reached) results in gaining a better range of motion (12). With a better range of motion, you become more flexible. Static stretching after exercise hasn’t been shown to have a meaningful effect on muscle soreness (13-14). However, static stretching does improve relaxation of the muscles by improving heart rate variability (15) – a topic that will be further discussed in a future post.
Take Home Messages
Across the research, its generally accepted that holding a static stretch for 15 to 30 seconds to a point of mild discomfort is sufficient when aiming to increase flexibility. Holding for longer may help even more. This can be done after exercise or anytime across the week at least twice (16-17).
It’s clear that having good flexibility is great for moving better in general and is essential for some sports and activities. There is a lot of conflicting research around the area, but from current research, the following rough guidelines can be concluded:
- Static stretching before most activities should be avoided as it can decrease performance – the best way to warm up is to complete similar dynamic stretching movements to the preceding activity.
- Including static stretching after exercise or generally throughout your week can improve your flexibility and overall ROM. Holding stretches for a duration of 15 to 30 seconds can be beneficial.
It should be noted that stretching isn’t the best form of recovery for athletes. Cold therapies and compression garments have been shown to be a much better alternative. In the next post, these more beneficial recovery methods will be discussed further.
If there are any questions or topics you would like us to address on our blog, feel free to message us or leave a comment and we will try to help.
(1) Small, K., Mc Naughton, L. and Matthews, M., (2008) ‘A systematic review into the efficacy of static stretching as part of a warm-up for the prevention of exercise-related injury’, Research in sports medicine, 16(3), 213-231.
(2) Andersen, J.C., (2005) ‘Stretching before and after exercise: effect on muscle soreness and injury risk’ Journal of athletic training, 40(3), 218.
(3) McHugh, M.P. and Cosgrave, C.H., (2010) ‘To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance’, Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 20(2), 169-181.
(4) Cramer, J.T., Housh, T.J., Weir, J.P., Johnson, G.O., Coburn, J.W. and Beck, T.W., (2005) ‘The acute effects of static stretching on peak torque, mean power output, electromyography, and mechanomyography’, European journal of applied physiology, 93(5-6), 530-539.
(5) Marek, S.M., Cramer, J.T., Fincher, A.L., Massey, L.L., Dangelmaier, S.M., Purkayastha, S., Fitz, K.A. and Culbertson, J.Y., (2005) ‘Acute effects of static and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching on muscle strength and power output’, Journal of Athletic Training, 40(2), 94.
(6) Nelson, A.G., Kokkonen, J. and Arnall, D.A., (2005) ‘Acute muscle stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance’, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 19(2), 338-343.
(7) Behm, D.G., Blazevich, A.J., Kay, A.D. and McHugh, M., (2015) ‘Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review’, Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, 41(1), 1-11.
(8) McMillian, D.J., Moore, J.H., Hatler, B.S. and Taylor, D.C., (2006) ‘Dynamic vs. static-stretching warm up: the effect on power and agility performance’, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 20(3), 492-499.
(9) Harrison Gill, A. (2016) ‘Stretching the truth: a review of literature on the effects of static and dynamic stretching protocols on strength and power performance’, Journal of Australian Strength and Conditioning, 24(7), 61-67.
(10) Needham, R.A., Morse, C.I. and Degens, H., (2009) ‘The acute effect of different warm-up protocols on anaerobic performance in elite youth soccer players’ The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(9), 2614-2620.
(11) Su, H., Chang, N.J., Wu, W.L., Guo, L.Y. and Chu, I.H., (2017) ‘Acute effects of foam rolling, static stretching, and dynamic stretching during warm-ups on muscular flexibility and strength in young adults’, Journal of sport rehabilitation, 26(6), 469-477.
(12) Freitas, S.R., Vilarinho, D., Vaz, J.R., Bruno, P.M., Costa, P.B. and Mil‐homens, P., (2015) ‘Responses to static stretching are dependent on stretch intensity and duration’, Clinical physiology and functional imaging, 35(6), 478-484.
(13) Herbert, R.D. and Gabriel, M., (2002) ‘Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review’, Bmj, 325(7362), 468.
(14) Herbert, R.D., de Noronha, M. and Kamper, S.J., (2011) ‘Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (7).
(15) Farinatti, P.T., Brandão, C., Soares, P.P. and Duarte, A.F., (2011) ‘Acute effects of stretching exercise on the heart rate variability in subjects with low flexibility levels’, The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 25(6), 1579-1585.
(16) Page, P., (2012) ‘Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation’ International journal of sports physical therapy, 7(1), 109.
(17) Swain, D.P. and Leutholtz, B.C., (2007) ‘Exercise prescription: a case study approach to the ACSM guidelines’, Human Kinetics.