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When and how should you stretch?

In this article I discuss the main benefits of static and dynamic stretches as well as how you can decide which type of stretch is best to do. This topic was requested by the sporty folk in my Sports Injury FB Group. Feel free to join the group if you would like to learn more about injury prevention or want to ask questions about your own injuries.

In this article:

  • The good and bad of static stretching

  • The good and bad of dynamic stretching

  • When warming up your choice of stretch should depend on…

  • What type of stretching to do after sport

  • When to avoid stretches

  • Download example stretching programmes

Here's the video of the livestream I did in the Facebook Group.



The good and bad of static stretching


  • Static stretches are better than dynamic stretches at improving range of motion (ref).

  • Holding a static stretch for longer than 45 seconds can switch a muscle off and reduce your performance BUT several studies (ref, ref, ref) have now shown that you can safely do static stretches without affecting your performance as long as you hold them for shorter than 45 seconds and follow it up by doing some dynamic stretches.

  • Stretching before, during or after exercise does not have any significant effect on the muscle soreness you feel after exercise (ref).


The good and bad of dynamic stretching


  • Dynamic stretches do increase range of motion but not to the same extent as static stretches (ref).

  • This type of stretching has been shown to improve muscle force and power which leads to improvements in sprint performance and explosive strength e.g. jump height.

  • But it is worth pointing out that some studies have also shown that dynamic stretches can cause a decrease in performance (ref). It seems that this is a clear case of more is not always better. The researchers in these studies think that the reason for this drop in performance after doing dynamics stretches was due to the participants doing too many and actually tiring their muscles out before they ran or jumped.

  • Doing dynamic stretches will unfortunately also not decrease the amount of muscle soreness you feel after exercise (ref).



When warming up your choice of stretch should depend on…


What sport you’re about to do and what your body is telling you it needs at that moment.


Think about it. If you’re a gymnast, getting large ranges of motion in all your joints before you train or compete is extremely important, in which case static stretches may form an important part of your warm-up routine.


Runners on the other hand may be able to get the full range they need from dynamic stretches alone. You may even find that what you need to do before a run changes depending on the day.


Take your hips for instance. If you’ve spent the day sitting, you may find that your hip flexors feel super tight and that you struggle to get your full hip extension through dynamic stretches alone. On those days you may have to do some passive hip flexor stretches before you do your dynamic ones. On other days you may find that dynamic ones does the job just fine, so make sure that you listen to your body.


If you're doing static stretches before a run, make sure you hold them for less than 45 seconds and do some dynamic ones to activate those muscles afterwards.


I would always do dynamic stretches as part of a warm-up as they prime your body for exercise by waking up your muscles and nerves and lubricating your joints. What movements I do will all depend on the sport I’m about to do.


If my sport involves running, I will definitely include movements like backwards lunges that activate the muscles that I’m about to use but also move my body through the range that I need for running.


The research isn’t clear on how many repetitions of dynamic stretches we should be doing. What it has shown is that dynamic stretches that are performed “as quickly as possible” produces better gains in performance than moderate speed ones (ref).


Just remember, that you need to be careful to not tire yourself out with your dynamic warm-up routine or else you may perform worse!


What type of stretching to do after sport


Static stretches are a good choice to help you restore your full range of motion after sport. There is some evidence that regular stretching can prevent acute muscle tears in sprinters, but it doesn’t seem to protect against overuse injuries e.g. Achilles tendinopathy (ref).


I usually hold my stretches between 30 and 40 seconds and do 2 or 3 repetitions on each side. Try combining it with deep breathing – it helps to lower cortisol levels and will provide the added benefit of lowering your stress levels.


Never force a stretch! A gentle comfortable stretch usually produces better results than painful forceful stretches.


When to avoid stretches


Not all injuries should be stretched. In fact, very few should be stretched using static stretches within the first few weeks. Dynamic movements performed just short of pain is often the best choice.


When you injure a ligament, muscle, tendon or joint you often tear a few of the fibres and cells in those structures. Can you see that stretching those torn fibres may not be a good idea when the body is still trying to repair them? That said, there are definitely some injuries that react very well to static stretches but these are often patient specific and I would strongly advise that you consult a physiotherapist before you try any stretches for your injuries. This is something that I could help you with through an online physio consultation.


Another good example of a condition that often does not react well to stretches is sciatica (or pretty much any other nerve pain). Doing hamstring or glute/piriformis stretches can often make sciatica worse. Please consult a physio if you suspect that you may have nerve pain.


It is possible to over-stretch


More is not always better. As mentioned above, doing too many dynamic stretches before you train can tire your muscles out and actually decrease your performance.


Pushing static stretches into pain or too strongly can cause strains and tears. Also, there is really no evidence that being super stretchy will keep you injury free. You need enough range of motion to do your sports but having any more won't add any extra benefits.


Download example stretching programmes


I've prepared some example programmes for both static and dynamic stretches which you can download if you follow this link and subscribe to my email list.

Let me know if you’ve got any questions. Need more specific help with an injury? You can also consult me via Skype for bespoke online physio treatment plans.

Best wishes

Maryke



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 ReasearchGate



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