Static Stretching Before a Workout: Is It a Good Idea?
How many times have you heard you need to stretch before a workout? Probably more times than you can remember! At one time, fitness trainers routinely recommended static stretching before starting a workout, but times have changed. Now, they’re more likely to advocate static stretching after the workout is over. Why the shift in thinking, and when should you do static stretching?
What Static Stretching Is and Isn’t
Static stretching is where you stretch a muscle while it’s in a static position. You then hold the stretch for 10 to 30 seconds. An example of a static stretch would be descending into a lunge position and holding that position for up to 30 seconds. Static stretching differs from dynamic stretching. With dynamic stretching, you lengthen the muscle throughout its full range-of-motion rather than holding it at a fixed static length. Keeping with the lunge theme, walking lunges are a dynamic stretching exercise.
Both types of stretches have benefits. Dynamic stretching boosts blood flow to the muscles you’ll be working. It also gets the muscles firing for your upcoming workout. Never work a muscle when it’s cold. Like a rubber band, a cold muscle or tendon is more likely to “snap” and lead to an injury. However, studies looking at whether stretching reduces the risk of injury are inconsistent. Some research shows modest benefit while others do not. The evidence is particularly weak for static stretching. A review of more than 100 studies on static stretching before a workout found static stretches don’t lower the risk of injury.
While dynamic stretching is an ideal workout opener, static stretching is a good workout finisher. That’s because static stretching lengthens the muscle and reduces muscle tension and tightness after a training session. Static stretching may, if you’re consistent about it, improve the muscle’s flexibility. But the reason stretching makes a muscle more flexible is different than what people believe. Stretching doesn’t permanently lengthen a muscle. The muscle draws back to its prior length rather quickly after you stop stretching. However, repeated static stretching, over time, makes your nervous system a bit more “permissive.” The nervous system allows the muscle to lengthen further without sounding the alarm that you’re overstretching it. So, flexibility improves.
Why Static Stretching is Best after a Workout
Lengthening a muscle temporarily might sound like a good thing. However, a study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that doing so can reduce exercise performance, depending upon the type of exercise you’re doing. For example, a study found that static stretching before a workout or sports competition reduced power capabilities. In other words, the muscle you stretched may not be able to generate as much explosive force or power after statically lengthening it. Other research shows static stretching may reduce other capabilities, including muscle endurance, force production by the muscle, reaction time, and running speed. On the other hand, dynamic stretching works because it warms up the muscles you’ll be working without reducing their ability to generate power.
Even worse than static stretching before a workout is an old school way of stretching called ballistic stretching. With ballistic stretching, you get into a position where the muscle is stretched and bounce in and out of the stretch. For a lunge-style stretch, a ballistic stretch would be bouncing up and down in a lunge position. This type of stretch has fallen out of favor.
How to Structure Your Stretches
Don’t give up static stretching. Just shift static muscle lengthening to the end of your workout or do a separate static stretching session when you aren’t doing another workout. Before routine training sessions, warm up with dynamic stretches that get the blood flowing to the muscles you’ll be working. You can also do dynamic movements that mimic those you’ll do in your workout. Arm swings, butt kicks, high knees, leg swings are all good movements for warming up your muscles and getting them ready to work.
As far as ballistic stretches, there’s not really a place for them, since aggressive bouncing, especially when a muscle is cold, can lead to a strain or injury. If you insist on doing ballistic stretches, do them at the end of your workout when your muscles are warm.
The Bottom Line
Do dynamic stretches before your workout and static stretches afterward. This stretching sequence will give you benefits without detracting from your workout performance. Whatever you do, don’t grab a pair or weights or break into a sprint without warming your muscles up first. Dynamic stretching will help you get those muscles ready to work in the safest, most efficient manner.
Fitness Prescription. April 2007. page 18.
National Strength and Conditioning Association. “Static Stretching and Performance”
Runner’s World website. “Does Stretching Prevent Injuries?”