Is stretching before a workout bad?

I think most of us can remember standing in our high school gym class, going through a series of obligatory stretches as we warmed up before class.

Our athletic coaches told us that stretching before a game not only warmed up our muscles but helped to prevent injuries as well.

So then what’s the problem?

A little information can be a dangerous thing

Over the last several years, however, a lot of coaches and parents have seen articles online about how stretching our muscles before a workout or game will inevitably lead to poor performance, horrific injuries, impaired muscle growth, and of course, humiliating defeat.

But how much of this is actually true?

What do the scientific studies really say about this topic, and why are we all freaking out about it?

What happened is that about ten years ago, researchers began to notice that athletes who stretched a particular muscle (in a specific way) were found to have a 5%-7.5% reduction in their explosive jumping power immediately afterward.

Having said that, I think the results of these studies have been blown way out of proportion in the media. In fact, I’ve seen volunteer rec coaches being reprimanded by the parents on the sidelines if these coaches had their 10-year old soccer players stretching before a game. 

Keep in mind that we’re only talking about a 5% or so reduction in the athlete’s explosive power (usually jumping ability) while the stretching did not affect their overall level of strength or muscular endurance. 

 They also seem to overlook the fact that, in these same research studies, the negative effects from stretching were virtually eliminated if the athletes waited at least 10 minutes before starting their competition.

It also depends on the length and intensity of the stretches

I should also mention that any negative effects seem to depend on the intensity and the length of time spent on these stretches. In fact,a systematic review of over 100 research studies found that moderate static stretches lasting less than a minute do not negatively affect performance.

The key it seems is to keep these stretches both relatively short (<60 seconds) and to a moderate intensity instead of pushing them to their maximum range, as you might do if you are trying to increase your flexibility.

Keep in mind that any type of warm-up should be gradually ramped up in speed, load, and intensity. It also needs to follow a progressive sequence from general movements to activity specific.

 “On the basis of the current evidence, the inclusion of short durations of either static or dynamic stretching is unlikely to affect sprint running, jumping, or change of direction performance when performed as part of a comprehensive physical preparation routine.”

Blazevich AJ, et al.

So even though static stretching by itself may not be the best way to get ready for your workout or game, you shouldn’t be afraid to include some stretching as long as it’s part of a larger warm-up routine.

But what exactly does that mean? 

R.A.M.P.ing up your warm-up plan

We have to remember that warming up is not one particular activity, but a series of steps that will help us to prevent injuries and prepare our body for the upcoming workout or athletic competition.

In recent years, trainers and coaches have come up with the acronym R.A.M.P. to describe this progressive system of warming up.

We do this by…
Raising your overall body temperature
Activating the relevant muscle groups
Mobilizing your joints into their full range of motion
Potentiating (or preparing) your muscles and nervous system

Raising your body temperature

The first step in this process is one that many of us neglect before starting our workout. 

How many times have you seen people walk into the gym, sit down at a machine, and just start working out? I know I have, and you may have even done this yourself.

Think about it, most of us go from sitting in our office for eight hours to sitting in our car, and then suddenly we’re in the gym cranking out max reps on the bench press machine.

It’s kind of like starting your car on a cold day and then immediately getting onto the highway going 70 miles an hour. It turns out that your car, like your body, works better when it has a chance to warm up before asking it to perform at its maximum capacity.

The way we do this is by gradually raising our overall body temperature, which in turn, warms up our muscles and primes our nervous system for movement.

Typically I recommend hopping on a bike, treadmill, rower, or elliptical for 5-10 minutes at a nice easy pace. Any type of full-body cardio machine will work as long as it is low impact and can be adjusted for easy effort. 

 Also, keep in mind that this is not intended to be part of your workout, but simply a way to prepare your body for movement. By the time you’re finished, your heart rate should be up, your breathing will be faster, and you should be starting to sweat.

Activating relevant muscle groups

The first thing to know here is that “activating” a muscle is not the same thing as stretching it.

We activate a muscle by contracting it.

You have to remember that, with a few exceptions (think stabilizing core muscles) our skeletal muscles only have one job, which is to contract and pull two bones closer together across a joint. This is known as a concentric contraction.

Although it’s true that a muscle can also contract isometrically (i.e. not moving — ex. holding your arm out to your side) or eccentrically (i.e. lengthening — ex. lowering yourself at the end of a pull up) the muscle itself is still in various states of contraction.

So to activate a muscle, we contract it, which not only helps to warm up the muscle, but also the tendons that connect that muscle to the bones. 

The muscles we need to activate will depend on which muscles we’ll be using the most that day.

So for example, if it’s leg day, we might start by activating our glutes, quads, hamstrings, and core. We can do this by using specific activation movements such as wall squats, glute bridges, leg kickbacks, and planks.

Mobilizing our joints with dynamic stretches

Now that we’ve raised our core temperature and activated our relevant muscle groups, we need to mobilize (or move) our joints to make sure that we will be able to achieve a full range of movement 

Before we can really talk about what dynamic stretching is, however, we might want to take a step back and look at what exactly we mean when we talk about static stretching. 

A traditional static stretch is a movement that places a part of the body (typically the arms and legs) at the end of its natural range of motion and is then held in that position for a certain period of time in hopes of increasing that joint’s degree of flexibility.

In other words, the purpose of static stretching is for increasing our flexibility and range of motion.

Anyone who has tried unsuccessfully to do the splits or touch their toes understands that static stretches can be quite uncomfortable because they are designed to push the current limits of our flexibility.

Dynamic (or moving) stretches, on the other hand, are often similar movements to static stretching, with the exception that they are not held at their final position.

For example, a walking lunge is essentially a hamstring, hip flexor, and glute stretch combined except that the final position is only held for a few seconds before moving on to the other leg.

If instead of moving on, you were to hold that lunge position while pushing it to its maximum range of motion, that same position would be considered a static (or non-moving) stretch.

Potentiate (preparing) and activating our nervous system

Finally, the last part of our warm-up routine is to prepare and activate the nervous system to be ready to handle the load and intensity of our upcoming workout.

We do this by gradually increasing the speed and intensity of our movements so we will be ready to perform at our maximum capacity.

Unfortunately, this last step is the point where a lot of people begin their warm-up routine, that is, if they choose to warm up at all. 

How many people have you seen in the gym who move from machine to machine and just start cranking out their workout even if they haven’t warmed up those particular muscles?

I see people all the time in the 30-minute workout room jump from leg extensions to lat pulldowns to bicep curls.  

Even though they may be already sweaty and out of breath from sprinting from machine to machine, they still haven’t warmed up the specific muscles they are working. 

In other words, just because you have done leg curls, that doesn’t mean that your back muscles are warmed up and ready to go for the incline rowing machine.

So even though the first three steps of this warm-up process can be completed before your workout begins (R.A.M.) this last step (P) should be done throughout your workout and especially when you begin working a new muscle group. 

So, for example, if you start your workout with squats, you may start with a bodyweight set, then maybe half of your working set weight, then perhaps another set at 75% of your normal working set weight to prepare your muscles as well as your nervous system.

Then when you move on to the lat pulldown machine, you will need to repeat this procedure for your back muscles.

Preparing for an athletic event

So how does this apply to athletic competitions where you may not have the luxury of doing warm-up sets, and you’ll often have to go from the sidelines to maximum effort in just a few seconds?

In this case, after completing your normal warm-up routine, you will want to keep your body temperature up and your muscles warm while you are waiting to enter the game. This is why you will often see football and soccer players pedaling stationary bikes or pacing the sidelines. 

It’s also important to keep your nervous system activated and prepared so you will be ready to enter the game at full speed. Often you will see basketball players jumping up and down before entering the game, or soccer players running sprints up and down the sidelines. These explosive movements help to keep their muscles warm and prepare their nervous system to respond to game-like conditions.

The bottom line…

In recent years static stretching before a workout or athletic event has gotten a bad reputation in the media and coaching community.

However, research has shown that static stretching can be a valuable part of an overall warm-up routine, as long as the duration of the stretches is kept short (<60 seconds), and the intensity is kept moderate.

In order to prepare your body and minimize the risk of injuries, it’s important to follow the R.A.M.P. warm-up routine before your workout or athletic competition.

We do this by first raising your overall body temperature with 5-10 minutes of easy cardio (bike, treadmill, elliptical, etc..)

Next, you will activate the specific muscle groups that you’ll be using for your upcoming workout or competition.

Follow this up by using dynamic movement patterns to simulate the full range of motion that you’ll be required to use during your workout or athletic event.

Then as you are waiting to enter the competition, be sure to keep your body temperature up, your muscles warm, and your nervous system ready to respond by gradually ramping up the speed and intensity of your movements to simulate game-like conditions.

Finally, if your goal is not to warm up, but to increase your muscle flexibility or range of motion. Save this type of intense static stretching session for either after your workout or on your off day. 

What do you think?

Do you usually stretch before your workout? Do you have a set routine or does it vary based on your activity? What types of stretching do you find to be the most valuable? Have you found that your warm-up routine has changed as you have gotten older? If you would please take a moment to share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

References:

Behm DG, et al. “Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review.” Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2016 Jan;41(1):1-11.  

Reid JC, et al. “The effects of different durations of static stretching within a comprehensive warm-up on voluntary and evoked contractile properties.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2018 Jul;118(7):1427-1445.  

Kay AD, Blazevich AJ. “Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Jan;44(1):154-64.

Mizuno T, et al. ” Stretching-induced deficit of maximal isometric torque is restored within 10 minutes.” J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jan;28(1):147-53.

Blazevich AJ, et al. “No Effect of Muscle Stretching within a Full, Dynamic Warm-up on Athletic Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.” 2018;50(6):1258-1266. 

César, Denis & Vieira, et al. (2019). “Shorter static stretching volume does not impair isokinetic muscle strength.” Journal of Physical Education and Sport 10.7752/jpes.2019.s4209. 

Peck E, et al. “The effects of stretching on performance.” Curr Sports Med Rep. 2014 May-Jun;13(3):179-85.   

Behm DG, Chaouachi A. “A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance.” Eur J Appl Physiol. 2011 Nov;111(11):2633-51.  

Stevanovic VB, et al. “Sport-Specific Warm-Up Attenuates Static Stretching- Induced Negative Effects on Vertical Jump But Not Neuromuscular Excitability in Basketball Players.” J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Jun 1;18(2):282-289.  

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