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Stop telling people that static stretches before exercise are bad

Updated: Mar 24

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 you should never do static stretches before exercise. There is some truth in this, but it's an extreme oversimplification of the research and applies only to very specific circumstances.

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

In this article I will look at:

  • What is static stretching?

  • Benefits of static stretching

  • The drawbacks

  • What it doesn't do

  • Summary and recommendations

What is static stretching?

Static stretching is when you passively stretch a muscle as far as it will allow you and hold it still at that point for a period of time. The girl in the picture above is doing a static stretch of her hamstrings.

Benefits of static stretching

It effectively increases your flexibility and range of motion (how far a joint 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. More is not always better when it comes to stretching and excessive flexibility has been linked to an increased risk of injury.

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 as important for me.” But if you sit for a long period in the day, 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 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.

The Drawbacks

Holding a static stretch for too long can switch the muscle off and reduce your performance. A recent review of the literature has found that holding a stretch for longer than 60 seconds can reduce your ability to produce muscle force by up to 4.6%.

But if you hold a stretch for less than 45 seconds and follow the static stretches up with a set of dynamic stretches/activities you can get the benefit of the increased range of motion WITHOUT a drop in performance (ref and ref).

What this means is that you should perform slightly shorter duration stretches before exercise and follow it up with a set of dynamic stretches.

You can consult an experienced sports physio online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan. Follow the link to learn more.

What it doesn’t do

Stretching does not help to reduce the soreness that you develop 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.

Summary and recommendations

  • Static stretches are better than dynamic stretches in producing flexibility.

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

  • Be careful not to over-stretch.

  • As part of warm-up: Don’t hold static stretches for more than 45 seconds and do a set of dynamic stretches immediately after the static stretches to ensure that you wake your muscles up.

  • As part of cool-down: You can hold static stretches for longer than 45 seconds, but it is important not to push into pain.

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.

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn or ResearchGate.


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