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Static stretches are NOT bad - here’s what the research shows about when and how to use them

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Static stretching has become a controversial subject in recent years. You may have seen headlines such as "Stretching does not prevent injury" or you may even have been told by a well-meaning trainer that static stretches are bad and should never be done before a workout. There is some truth in this, but it's an extreme oversimplification of the research and applies only to very specific circumstances. In this article, we discuss the most recent research and explains how to do static stretches safely before your workouts. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.


Static stretches like the hamstring stretch this girl is doing can be beneficial before exercise.

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What is static stretching?


Static stretching is characterised by long, sustained holds - it is when you passively stretch a muscle as far as it will allow you to and hold it still at that point. The woman in the picture above is doing a static stretch of her hamstrings.


The main difference between static and dynamic stretching is how long you hold the position for. With dynamic stretching, you move repetitively into and out of the stretch position, perhaps pausing for a few seconds, whereas with static stretching, you maintain the stretch for ten seconds or longer (most commonly for 30 seconds).


Is static stretching bad for you?


No, static stretching isn’t bad; it depends on how you do it. The two common mistakes that can produce bad outcomes are holding a stretch for too long and being too forceful. So, lets look at how to avoid this.



Static stretching before workouts

The reason people often tell you not to do static stretches before workouts is because there is some research that showed that static stretches can temporarily reduce your muscle strength and power. However, this only happens in very specific circumstances. According to the research:

  1. Holding static stretches for longer than 60 seconds may reduce muscle strength and power for a few minutes, but this is not permanent and does not reduce strength gains from workouts.

  2. Holding a static stretch for less than 60 seconds does not affect your muscle function, especially if you do it at the start of a well-rounded warm-up session that includes sport specific movements. (The research: Reference 1, Reference 2, Reference 3, Reference 4.)

The verdict: Static stretching is not bad for your performance if you use shorter static stretches (30 seconds work well) and follow them up with sport specific activities (drills like butt kicks, high knees, jumps, and sprints).


Over-stretching injuries

You can injure yourself by doing very strong stretches and holding them for extended periods of time or just repeating them too often. Two examples of injuries that can be caused by excessive stretching are high hamstring tendinopathy (overdoing hamstring stretches) and insertional Achilles tendinopathy (overdoing calf stretches).


The verdict: Static stretches are safe as long as you only take them to the point where you feel a comfortable, gentle stretch, hold them for less than 60 seconds, and don't do them too often.

Remember, you should not pull or push as hard as you can. Just take the movement to the point where you feel a gentle stretch and hold it there.

Benefits of static stretching


It effectively increases your flexibility and range of motion (how far a joint or muscle can move). Static stretching has been shown to be more effective than dynamic stretching in improving your flexibility.


Static stretching has also been shown to prevent acute muscle strains and tears in running and sprinting sports.


Increased flexibility may help athletes, e.g. gymnasts or even tennis players, perform better (think how far Novak Djokovic can stretch), but only if you also work on strengthening your muscles to control your movement through that range of movement.


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You may think, “I’m just an office worker who wants to go for a jog or do a step class after work, so this is not very important for me.” But if you sit for long periods, the muscles at the front of your hips (hip flexors) shorten. If you then go for a run or try and do an exercise class without stretching them out first, your legs can’t move back as far as they should. This can predispose you to muscle strains, but it also means that you can’t use your glutes (muscles in your bum) effectively.


As we get older, our bodies naturally lose some of the flexibility in their muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Static stretching becomes more important for older athletes who want to stay injury free and maintain their flexibility.


What it doesn’t do


Stretching does not help to reduce soreness in the days after exercise (DOMS).


The research has also shown that routine stretching does not prevent repetitive strain injuries, but that it does play a role in preventing acute muscle strains and tears.

Don't do static stretches if you have an injury. Stretching sensitive or injured muscles and tendons often just makes things worse. Speak to your physio to find out what exercises are right for your injury and when you can safely start adding in static stretches.

Static stretches for legs


Glute stretch

Instructions

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent up.

  2. Place your right leg (just above the ankle) on your left thigh.

  3. Grab hold of your left thigh and pull it to your chest until you feel a gentle stretch in your right buttock.

  4. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  5. Switch legs and repeat.

  6. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: Place a pillow under your head if your upper back is stiff and you struggle to keep your head on the floor. Place a towel around your leg and grab that instead if you’re very tight and struggle to bring your leg up.


Hip flexor stretch


Instructions

  1. Kneel on a soft cushion on your right knee and with your left leg out in front of you.

  2. Tighten your stomach muscles and tilt your pelvis back.

  3. Now slowly lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch over the front of your right hip and thigh. You may also feel a stretch in the back of your left thigh and buttock if your hamstrings are tight on that side.

  4. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  5. Switch legs and repeat.

  6. Do 3 times on each side.

Quad stretch


Instructions

  1. Stand on your right leg - hold on to something stable if you struggle to balance.

  2. Grab hold of your left ankle.

  3. Bring your left knee in line with your right knee. You may already be feeling a stretch over the front of your left thigh.

  4. If the stretch feeling is not too strong, you can also pull your foot up to your buttock.

  5. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  6. Switch legs and repeat.

  7. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: Make sure your knees remain aligned. If you allow your knee to move further forward than your supporting leg, you will lose some of the stretch.


Hamstring stretch


Instructions

  1. Lie on your back.

  2. Bend your left knee up and hook a band around your foot - a non-stretchy band works best.

  3. With your hip in a 90 degree angle, slowly start to straighten you knee out.

  4. You leg might not move as far as in the picture - that is absolutely fine. Only straighten it until you feel a gentle stretch behind your thigh.

  5. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  6. Switch legs and repeat.

  7. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: If you strongly pull your foot back while your leg is straight, it will also stretch your sciatic nerve, which can make the stretch very uncomfortable. So, focus on straightening the knee rather than pulling hard on your foot.



Calf stretch


Instructions

  1. Take a step forward so your right foot is about a stride’s length in front of the left.

  2. Keep the left knee (leg at the back) straight and that heel on the floor throughout the exercise.

  3. Slowly bend your right knee (leg at the front) until you feel a gentle stretch in your left calf.

  4. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  5. Switch legs and repeat.

  6. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: If you don’t feel much of a stretch, you can take a larger step. If you find the stretch uncomfortable, take a smaller step and only bend your front knee a little bit.

If, with any of these exercises, you don't really feel a stretch, then it may be that you are not tight in that area and don't need to stretch it.

Static stretches for arms


Posterior deltoid and rotator cuff stretch


Instructions

  1. Cross your left arm over your chest at a slight downward angle.

  2. Use your right arm to gently press your left into your chest until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of your shoulder.

  3. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  4. Switch arms and repeat.

  5. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: Remember to angle your arm down a bit. If you reach straight over at shoulder height or higher, you will often not feel a stretch.


Pec stretch (plus a bit of biceps)


Instructions

  1. Stand with your arm straight out to the side and hook your hand behind a door frame or other solid object.

  2. Have your hand at shoulder height or slightly higher.

  3. Slowly turn your body away from your hand until you feel a gentle stretch over the front of your chest or shoulder. You may also feel a stretch in your biceps.

  4. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  5. Switch arms and repeat.

  6. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: If your hand is lower than shoulder height, you will likely not feel a stretch. If your hand is in line with your shoulder, the stretch targets the pec minor more. If you hand is higher than shoulder height, it targets the pectoralis major more.


Biceps stretch

Instructions

  1. Interlink your fingers behind your back.

  2. Lift your hands up behind you.

  3. You can also bend forward to increase the stretch.

  4. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  5. Rest for 20 seconds while swinging your arms.

  6. Do 3 repetitions.

Triceps and latissimus dorsi stretch


Instructions

  1. Place your right hand behind your head (it doesn't matter if you can't reach very far back).

  2. Use your left hand to gently pull our elbow back.

  3. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  4. Switch arms and repeat.

  5. Do 3 times on each side.

Upper traps stretch


Instructions

  1. Let your left ear drop towards your left shoulder.

  2. Place your left hand on your head and gently pull it to the left until you feel a gentle stretch in your right neck and upper traps.

  3. Check that your right shoulder stays down and don't pull up to your ear.

  4. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds (shorter holds are often better for the neck).

  5. Repeat on the other side.

  6. Do 3 times each side.

Wrist flexor stretch


Instructions

  1. Hold your left arm out straight in front of you - your palm can face up or down.

  2. Use your right hand to gently pull your fingers and palm back until you feel a gentle stretch in your palm and/or forearm.

  3. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds.

  4. Switch arms and repeat.

  5. Do 3 times on each side.

Top tip: You may feel a better stretch if you start with your palm facing up so that your fingers move towards the floor when you pull the wrist back (so, opposite to the picture above). Try not to bend you fingers back too severely - the person in the picture is likely to sprain his fingers over time by placing so much force on them. Instead, place half of the pressure on your palm.


Summary and recommendations

  • Static stretches are better than dynamic stretches in producing flexibility and improving range of motion.

  • We all require a certain level of flexibility to perform our chosen sport/activity.

  • Be careful not to over-stretch.

  • As part of your warm-up: Don’t hold static stretches for more than 60 seconds and do a set of dynamic or sport specific movements immediately after the static stretches to ensure that you wake your muscles up.

  • As part of your cool-down: You can hold static stretches for longer than 60 seconds, but be careful not to overstretch. Shorter holds may still be better and it should feel like a gentle, comfortable stretch.

  • Most injuries don't tolerate static stretching during the early stage of recovery, so speak to your physio to understand what exercises are appropriate for you.

How we can help


Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

The Sports Injury Physio team

We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Sports Injury Physio we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.

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About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 20 years' experience and a Master’s Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.


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