This warm-up activity could be doing you more harm than good.
By Marie Look
Stretching has become a controversial topic in the fitness community due to increasing evidence that it is, at best, a waste of time, and at worst, an activity that can decrease muscle strength, lead to injury and lower overall performance. That’s tough to hear, especially since coaches, doctors, educators and parents have reinforced the idea of stretching in many of us since we were kids. But let’s take a look at why everyone is getting bent out of shape, plus what you should (or shouldn’t) be incorporating into your own workout routines.
While stretching can be broken down into any number of differentiating categories, “dynamic stretching” and “static stretching” are two terms that frequently come up. Examples of dynamic stretches would be walking lunges, arm swings and hip circles — all activities intended to warm up the body, accelerate the heart rate and essentially prepare the body for the work ahead. Static stretches, on the other hand, involve holding a certain position for a number of seconds.
Although researchers and health and fitness experts still can’t seem to agree on exactly how effective dynamic stretching is at preventing injury and improving athletic performance, more and more professionals in those fields are convinced that static stretching is ineffective and even unsafe.
In a study at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes were found to generate less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after having not stretched at all. Other studies have shown that static stretching can also have unwanted effects on lower limb power, sprinting ability and vertical jump, with some studies reporting that this type of stretching was shown to decrease muscle strength by as much as 30 percent.
That muscle weakness might be due to the fact that static stretches elongate the muscle fibers, thereby lowering the fibers’ concentration of power. Additional research has determined something called a neuromuscular inhibitory response could also be to blame. This means the stretched muscle becomes temporarily weaker and less responsive, causing the central nervous system to reduce the strength of other muscles — potentially even on the opposite side of the body — as the body tries to restore balance and protect itself from further injury.
But static stretching doesn’t only affect strength and power, it can also impact endurance. In 2010, researchers at Florida State University found that trained distance runners who did static stretches before a time trial became about five percent less efficient and covered three percent less distance than when they did not do static stretches beforehand. The conclusion was that the runners ultimately covered less ground but used more energy doing so.
It’s not likely you’re a trained distance runner or looking to become one, but the stretching debate is important to anyone who wants to exercise effectively and remain injury-free. If you do choose to incorporate stretching into your fitness routine, always start with 10 to 15 minutes of aerobic exercise (such as slow jogging) that will elevate your heart rate and warm up your muscles. Then choose dynamic stretches that are specific to your sport or activity to ensure you’re preparing the muscles you’re about to work. Always stretch with controlled movements, rather than momentum, and practice constant biofeedback. In other words, if a movement goes beyond discomfort and into pain, stop immediately.
Also, keep in mind that inflexibility isn’t always a sign you’re unhealthy. What’s more important is that your body is balanced. So, if your right arm or leg has a range of motion that is different from that of the same limb on your left side, it could be a sign that something is wrong and needs special medical attention.
When it comes to stretching, the best thing you can do is familiarize yourself with the research and draw your own conclusions. Plus, consult with your doctor to weigh the pros and cons of the different kinds of stretching and determine what’s safe or unsafe for your personal situation.