To Stretch Or Not To Stretch: The Pros and Cons of Stretching

25-Sep 2015, by David Sautter

To stretch or not to stretch, that is the question! The pros and cons of stretching have been put into question time and time again, but what is the truth? Here's an evidence based review to settle it once and for all.

Stretching has held the reputation of being the least glamorous part of the workout and understandably so. While you are holding each stretch, it may feel like no real work is being done. You are simply standing still, holding a pose, and waiting. What’s more, popular fitness media has questioned the usefulness of stretching time and time again. Is stretching necessary to achieve your fitness goals? More importantly, is it safe to perform before, during, or after your workout?

Let’s take a look at the two types of stretching as well as the advantages and disadvantages of both to determine whether or not you need to be incorporating this simple act into your workouts.Stretching has held the reputation of being the least glamorous part of the workout and understandably so. While you are holding each stretch, it may feel like no real work is being done. You are simply standing still, holding a pose, and waiting. What’s more, popular fitness media has questioned the usefulness of stretching time and time again. Is stretching necessary to achieve your fitness goals? More importantly, is it safe to perform before, during, or after your workout?

Let’s take a look at the two types of stretching as well as the advantages and disadvantages of both to determine whether or not you need to be incorporating this simple act into your workouts.

Active vs. Static stretching

The classic image of stretching is a man standing upright, bending at the knee, and holding his foot while outstretching his other hand for balance. This bland visualization may be one of the reasons that stretching is viewed with apathy in the weight room. Put simply: It looks boring. Many fitness goers may not realize that there are two types of stretching: dynamic, or active, and static.

Dynamic Stretching

Also called active stretching, dynamic stretching takes each muscle group through a series of movements that mimic the workout to come. The goal of dynamic stretching is to engage and warm-up the muscle to prevent strain. For example, a set of bodyweight squats before four sets of barbell squats. Jumping right into a workout with cold muscles may impact your performance while increasing your risk for injury. Dynamic stretching, as implied above, is to be performed before your workout.

Static Stretching

This type of stretching involves holding a particular position to lengthen the muscle for an extended period of time. Ideally, you will hold a static stretch for no less than 30 seconds. Static stretching should be performed after your workout, not before. The idea behind post-workout static stretching is to lengthen the muscle in order to support recovery, maintain and increase flexibility, and avoid adhesions, or knots.

The argument against stretching

Your massage therapist and chiropractor lecture you for not doing it as much as you should and there are always a few people getting their stretch on in the gym so stretching has to be good, right? Well, that all depends on your fitness goals. If you are an athlete, powerlifter, or someone who is trying to maximize specific acute variables such as a one-repetition maximum, then one of the two types of stretching mentioned above may not help you.

Decrease in Strength and Stability

Studies, such as this one published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, show that static stretching impacted overall performance with an emphasis on lower body training. Men were split into two groups:

  • One that performed a resistance workout
  • One that did a series of static stretches then performed a resistance workout.

The results showed that men who stretched before completing the lower body workout experienced a significant decrease of 8.36% and 22.68% in their one-repetition maximum and lower-body stability, respectively. (1)

Negatively Impacts Power and Performance

Another study, published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, evaluated the effects of dynamic and static stretching on the training drills for soccer players. Athletes performed one of the two types of stretching 24 hours before their workout. The subjects were then tested in sprinting and jumping, two activities that rely exclusively on power. The results were quite clear: The group that performed dynamic, or active, stretches excelled far above the group that used static stretching. (2)

I Should Skip Stretching, Right?

A 24-hour impact from static stretching does seem highly unlikely and, indeed, it is skewed studies such as this that cause a great deal of confusion in the fitness world. Still, it is important to search for the middle ground. Clearly, both studies showed that static stretching decreased one’s overall performance in regards to strength and power. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, promoted total body performance.

Put simply: If you are an athlete or power-driven fitness enthusiast, then it may be essential to skip static stretching and focus on dynamic pre-workout movements.

Why you need to stretch

If you don’t fit into one of those categories (i.e. – 99% of the fitness population) then both types of stretching may be some of the biggest assets in your workout repertoire. Here’s why:

Range of Motion, Flexibility, Injury Prevention

Having a healthy range of motion is incredibly important for a number of reasons:

  • Allows for proper exercise execution
  • Reduces the risk of strain and injury
  • Supports total body flexibility

If you are not able to put your muscle through its proper course of movement, then you are increasing your risk for strain due to misalignment. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy showed that all types of stretching improved and supported the body’s natural range of motion patterns. (3)

Reaping All the Benefits with the Right Stretches

Regardless of your fitness or athletic goals, it can be agreed that dynamic stretches need to be incorporated into every workout plan. With that said, what are the best stretches to choose?

Yoga-based stretches incorporate a great deal of movement, allowing you to warm-up and prepare for the workout ahead without impacting your performance. Science has had plenty to say about this type of stretching. Studies have proven the following benefits:

  • Improves flexibility (4)
  • Supports strength gains (4)
  • Decreases pain, particularly in the lower back (5)

To get you started, check out this great video featuring a full yoga-based pre-workout stretch.

Conclusion

Exercise science research can often be contradicting making your workout that much more confusing as you constantly think:

“Should I be doing this?”

Given the large number of studies performed on various fitness populations, it is clear that dynamic stretching is the most important part of a stretching routine.

Athletes may want to skip static stretching, especially if results are based on power. The average fitness goer, on the other hand, should take time before a workout to perform active stretches then spend time after a workout with static stretches. This will ensure a healthy range of motion, thereby promoting your flexibility and keeping you free from injury.

References

  1. Gergley, JC. (2013) Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research27 (4), 973-7.
  1. Haddad, Monoem; Dridi, Amir; Chtara, Moktar; Chaouachi, Anis; Wong, Del P.; Behm, David; Chamari, Karim. (2014) Static Stretching Can Impair Explosive Performance for At Least 24 Hours. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 28 (1), 140–146.
  1. Page, P. (2012) Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 7 (1), 109–119.
  1. Raub, JA. (2002) Psychophysiologic effects of hatha yoga on musculoskeletal and cardiopulmonary function: a literature review. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 8 (6), 797–812.
  1. Lipton L. (2008) Using yoga to treat disease: an evidence-based review. JAAPA. 21 (2), 34–36, 38, 41.

image credits: Bret Contreras

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