To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

Nicholas Lapointe | 28 Jun 2016
dog stretching

Stretching: a word that seems to mean something different to each person. That’s because stretching is a broad term encompassing several types of stretches that all serve different purposes. In this blog post, I'll be narrowing the term and focusing on the most popular and most talked about type: static stretching.

Definition:

A stretch that is held in a challenging but comfortable position for an extended period of time.

The "stretching world" seems to have turned on this once beloved style of stretching. The current trend among fitness professionals is to advise against static stretching, especially prior to a workout or athletic performance. Why? Because static stretching is said to decreases performance. Some even suggest it could be dangerous and lead to injury.

I’m going to respectfully disagree with this anti-static stretching trend.

What Research Says

Yes, there is plenty of research out there that states that static stretching acutely decreases strength, power, and athletic performance, but are these clinical results significant for the average client or fitness enthusiast? I say that they aren’t. Using an evidence based approach with your clients is great; however, I believe it’s also important to consider anecdotal evidence, along with empirical data (i.e. your experiences and observations) when advising a client.

In most anti-static stretching studies, stretches are held for at least 60 seconds then immediately followed by a max-effort exercise or repetition - hardly real-world conditions. Conversely, studies whose results show no negative impact on strength and/or performance, have study participants hold stretches for less than 30 seconds – much more realistic for the average gym-goer or personal training client.

What This Means

Though there are a number of studies that support the "static stretching is bad" mentality, these studies often fail to reflect real-world conditions. The fact that these studies that use much shorter holds, which would better represent the average person, and show no negative impacts in performance is something we all need to take note of.

The take away message to this post is: static stretches are not the demon many believe them to be, they just need to be done correctly. When developing a warm up routine for a client, you can feel confident about including static stretching, just ensure you combine it with light aerobic activity, neuromuscular work, and dynamic stretches – all vital elements to a comprehensive warmup.

Individual Differences

  • To decide if static stretching should be included in your client's routine, you must first answer a number of questions:
  • What are his or her goals?
  • Do they lack flexibility and/or range of motion?
  • Are they unable to perform certain lifts because of inflexibility?
  • Do they have an injury that static stretching could potentially help with?

I believe that almost everyone could benefit from some regular static stretching. That being said, there are some hypermobile individuals who don't need it as much as the rest of us. Gymnasts and dancers, for example, already benefit from ample flexibility and likely don’t need very much, if any, static stretching. Also, it’s understood that women tend to be more flexible than men. For this reason, I would say that, in general, men could probably benefit more from static stretching than women. The irony here is that if you take a look around your gym and notice who is stretching, it's not the men! If everyone lifted with full range of motion and proper technique all the time, there wouldn’t be such a need for stretching, but let’s be real; that’s far from what’s happening in our gyms.

Benefits of Static Stretching

In addition to being benign to performance, short duration stretches lasting less than 30 seconds have been shown to acutely increase flexibility and range of motion, which is imperative for those performing complex exercises and sport activities. Moreover, static stretching can correct muscle imbalances, help prevent injuries and strains, is relaxing both physically and mentally (which can help alleviate muscle tension caused by stress), takes little time to do and can be done anywhere, by anyone!

My Takeaway on Static Stretching

  • Static stretching should be implemented on a client-by-client basis, but most people would benefit from some additional stretching.
  • If static stretching is done as part of the warm up, keep holds to less than 30 seconds. If you choose to stretch after your workout or later that night, feel free to hold for longer periods.
  • It could be extra beneficial to static stretch before events that require a high degree of flexibility such as gymnastics.
  • Static stretching is only one part of the all-encompassing health and fitness puzzle, but its importance should not be underestimated.

Ultimately, the quantity of time that you allocate to static stretching, for yourself or your clients, will largely depend on the individual completing the workout. Even though I’m guilty of occasionally skipping my stretching session, I know I feel a lot better when I do it. Additionally, many of my clients have told me they feel the same way.

I hope this post has provided some clarity on the often foggy subject of static stretching, as well as insight on how to incorporate static stretching into training sessions to maximize results. Feel free to comment below to add your thoughts and experiences on this controversial topic in the fitness world!

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Nicholas Lapointe

About the author: Nicholas Lapointe

Nicholas Lapointe was a competitive swimmer for 15 years. His passion for performance and understanding the how the human body functions lead him to pursue his Bachelor of Physical and Health Education from Laurentian University which he graduated from in 2014. He then furthered his education at Niagara College where he obtained his Ontario Post-Graduate Certificate in Exercise Science for Health and Performance in 2015.

He is now a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology, as well as Level 1 Certified in Functional Movement Screens. He currently works at the University of Calgary in Calgary where he is the Coordinator of the Personal Training department as well as Head Personal Trainer.

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Comments (1)

Bond, M | 26 Jul 2016, 04:51 AM

I am a fascia researcher that has done extensive stretching research.... the results about it all are still so inconclusive... this is a great article that is very current... enjoy....

Behm, D.G., Blazevich, A.J., Kay, A.D., & McHugh, M. (2016). 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, 1-11. doi:10.1139/apnm-2015-0235

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