Static stretching has really taken a beating over the last several years after the publication of several studies that showed a reduction in strength, power, speed, and athletic performance. Many in the strength and fitness communities took this info and ran with it, condemning stretching before athletic competition.
As with any research, though, a careful assessment of the literature will show you that the concept of stretching before competition isn’t that simple. Saying that “stretching” causes something, either good or bad, is too simplistic without carefully describing the type of stretching and subjects that were in included in studies, and other similar variable.
Does Stretching Really Decrease Performance?
Conflicting reports only further complicate the issue, with a recent review showing that 69% of studies on stretching have reported no significant reduction in strength, power, or speed.
Recent studies and meta-analyses have been conducted to look at the this concept more closely and determine, does stretching really decrease performance? The results are certainly interesting, and it appears that there may be a time and a place for static stretching in our pre-event warm-up, especially considering the research that static stretching can help reduce muscle strain injuries.
Duration of Stretch is Important
One of the biggest factors behind reduced performance after stretching appears to be related to the duration of the stretch. A recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise performed a meta-analysis of 106 published studies to specifically look at the impact of stretch duration on performance.
When carefully breaking down the results of studies based on the duration of stretch, it appears that stretching for less than 30 seconds does not correlated to decreased performance, while stretching for more than 60 seconds does decrease performance.
The authors report that only 14% of studies reported a significant decrease in performance when stretching for less than 30 seconds, and 61% when stretching for more than 1 minute. You can see a large difference and what I would consider a relatively low risk when stretching is performed for shorter durations. Still, when stretching over 1 minute, results do not indicate that stretching reduces performance 100% of the time.
Timing of Stretch is Important
Another potential factor in decreased performance is the timing between a session of static stretching and the start of athletic competition. Many of the commonly published studies have looked at the immediate response to stretching, but how often do we stretch and then immediately run out onto the field and play?
Timing is an issue and this has led some authors to recommend a 5 minute period of time between stretching and the initiation of competition. This makes sense to me and something that I recommend.
Integration of Static and Dynamic Stretching is Important
After the initial knee jerk reaction to some of the stretching studies, many people immediately shifted to dynamic stretching instead of static stretching before sports. This led to the development of better dynamic warm up routines, which is certainly a good thing. But recent research has shown that combining the two may also be beneficial. In fact, the negative effects of static stretching were absent when combining both static and dynamic stretching.
It is hard to tell if the dynamic warmup was the factor that led to the change in findings in this study or simply just the 15-minute duration that occurred between the static stretching and testing protocol.
Regardless, I feel this is a great reason to include both static stretching and dynamic stretching, as this combination may be effective or at the very least it allows more time between static stretching and competition.
How and Why You May Want to Perform Static Stretching
In light of all the combined information above, it appears that there may be a proper way of incorporating static stretching into our routines if this is something you want to include. In my mind there are two different reasons where I would want to perform static stretching.
The first is for someone who obviously has a restriction that would benefit from stretching. Another major limitation to the stretching research is that it is predominantly performed with healthy individuals. But what about someone who has a past injury or deficits? In this situation we need to assess if addressing the restriction is more important than the potential risk of decreased performance.
I think static stretching is needed for these individuals and a part of a proper injury prevent program in this group. That doesn’t mean a global generic stretching routine, but rather focus on what needs to be stretched. However, I would still us the above principles in regard to duration, timing, and integration with a dynamic warm up.
The other scenario that I use static stretching before a competition is when an athlete just feels stiff or sore from past games, especially when in a sport that plays 162 games in 180 days, for example. Add some bus trips, flights, bad hotels, and plenty of overuse to the mix and our athletes are going to feel pretty stiff. Heck, I feel stiff and I’m not even playing.
In this scenario, I am not aggressively holding a static stretch for the intent of elongating tissue. Rather, I am just trying to neuromodulate tone and the athlete’s perceived stiffness. I often perform 3-5 reps of a stretch with holds between 3-5 seconds and essentially just pick up the tissue slack without torquing into end range motion.
I also don’t want running, throwing, or jumping during competition to be the first exposure the athlete’s body gets to the dynamic movement so just getting them lightly moving is helpful at times, I’ve discussed this briefly in the past.
I simple refer to this as a “fluff” stretch. In all honestly, I can’t remember the last time I held a stretch for 30 seconds let alone great than a minute. In my experience we stretch our athletes, many of which are already loose, too often and aggressively. I almost always prefer to stretch less.
Perhaps the best approach is to combine the two scenarios by stretching only what is needed and fluffing the rest?
I’m not sure the best answer but it does appear that if you hold static stretches for less than 30 seconds, include a dynamic warm up, and assure that at there is some time between stretching and competition that stretching will not decrease performance. (Click Here to Tweet This)
Regardless, I don’t think we need to fear and avoid static stretching before athletic competition is performed correctly and in the right scenario.