ToM Part I: The Death of Static Stretching
Some years ago I did an undergrad thesis on a review of the literature concerning stretching. What I found was that static stretching (getting into a stretch position and then holding, usually for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes) had very little to no benefit, especially prior to training or competition. I also found that the only type of stretching that was beneficial was dynamic, movement-centered stretching that focused on strong movement throughout an increasing range of motion.
Well here we are 5 years later and I’m noticing a couple of things. First, there’s even more research out there to support not using static stretching, especially prior to activity. Second, athletes from the beginning levels all the way up to world –class levels are still using static stretching as a main part of their practice/competition routines. I think that it’s something that has been in our athletic consciousness for so long that we’ve had a hard time letting go of it, even when the evidence is telling us to do so. I will do my best to, once and for all, dispel the idea that you need to sit for long periods of time in a stretched position and why doing so may actually be doing more harm than good.
With that being said, within the last 5 years there’s also been an explosion in mobility work- foam rolling, flossing, and various forms of dynamic stretching. And these are just the things that you can do yourself. For us practitioners, there’s an always expanding list of methods and techniques (most of them work very well) to help increase mobility in patients. The second (and maybe third) part to this series, which we’ll call the Trilogy of Mobility, will address the differences between mobility and flexibility, which one is more beneficial for you to focus on in going forward (if you haven’t guessed already, the answer will be mobility), and some basic examples to get you started. But for now, back to stretching…
Let’s dive right in and look at some reasons why static stretching isn’t beneficial, and how it can actually decrease your performance. When we hold a stretch our first neurological response is to fight it to avoid overstretch and injury. Our body fights the stretch for the first 30-60 seconds then finally decides that if injury hasn’t happened yet, it most likely won’t happen. It down-regulates the muscle causing it to stop firing and allowing it to “stretch”. Unfortunately this stretch trauma and down-regulation of the muscle also has been shown to decrease power, balance, agility, explosiveness (jumping and sprinting), and maximal strength in that muscle once we start activity. And there appears to be dose response to this- the more we hold the stretch, the more detrimental the effect to our performance ability. To be fair, some studies don’t show a decrease in performance following stretching, but almost all of these studies also do not show any benefit from static stretching.
With static stretching we do see a large increase in flexibility both right after and as a cumulative effect from regular stretching. The immediate increase in flexibility, however, only lasts an average of 30 minutes post-stretch and the cumulative effects don’t translate into an increase in performance. We also see that for runner’s and endurance athletes, stretching prior to activity does not help muscular endurance. Static stretching also does not seem to decrease stiffness in joints.
So what about getting injured from not stretching? The research is inconclusive on this. There is evidence that decreased flexibility can lead to an increased risk for injury. There is also evidence that decreased flexibility and range of motion following injury is an indicator of a poorer recovery. That being said, there isn’t research out there to support static stretching as being the answer to these problems, and overall increased static stretching doesn’t seem to decrease injury. Starting to get the picture?
Eccentric Strength Training
To put things into perspective, let’s contrast the effects of static stretching and those of eccentric strength training. Eccentric strength training is only having a load on the muscle while it is lengthening. For example, if doing a bicep curl, it means only slowly lowering the weight until your arms are completely straight and then not curling the bar back up after. This type of training has long been known by the lifting and bodybuilding communities to have incredible power in building muscle and strength. Now the research is showing that it also provides most of the benefits that we wanted from stretching.
Eccentric strength training is just as effective, if not more so, in increasing flexibility as static stretching. Additionally, the flexibility is proposed to come from changes in neurology, the actual muscle fascicles themselves, and from the tendons (static stretching only seems to affect the neurology and muscle) which results in lasting increases in joint range of motion. Endurance athletes do see an increase in muscle endurance following strength training.
When it comes to injury prevention/rehabilitation, eccentric training has, again, been shown to be better than static stretching. Slowly increasing strength training following injury is associated with quicker recovery time and a decreased chance of reinjury. Eccentrics are also widely regarded as the best exercise for repairing tendons following strain injuries.
To make another comparison, we’ll look at dynamic stretching (moving in and out of stretch without holding, an example being walking lunges) as compared to static. Dynamic stretching also increases flexibility, but without the drop in performance following. Dynamic stretching also increases the body and muscle temperatures, which primes the body for performance and decreases injury. Because dynamic stretching incorporates movement and better simulates athletics than static stretching, it also gets the neurological system firing and patterning in a way that primes the body for performance and decreases injury. All of this points to that fact that athletes should be using dynamic stretching before training/competition as part of their warm-up routine instead of static stretching.
• Static Stretching before activity DOES NOT decrease injury.
• Static Stretching DOES NOT increase physical performance and in many cases, it actually DECREASES it.
• Static Stretching IS NOT the best option for increasing strength and ROM following an injury.
• Eccentric Strength Training DOES decrease injury susceptibility while simultaneously INCREASING physical performance, and INCREASING flexibility/joint ROM.
• Dynamic Stretching is better before training/competition because it warms up the body in both temperature and neurological movement patterning, preparing the body for optimal performance and decreased injury.
• Dynamic stretching and eccentric strength training both increase and maintain flexibility as well as, if not better than, static stretching.
Stay tuned for the second part to this article- The Rise of Mobility. We will discuss why mobility is more important than flexibility and how mobility training will remove the need to ever perform static stretching again!
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