“What stretches should I do to help me reduce my risk for injury?”
“Will stretches help decrease muscle soreness after my workout?”
“What stretches should I be doing to help me with my athletic performance?
“When should I do dynamic vs static stretching? Does it matter?”
These are some of the most common stretching questions I field on the daily from patients, family and friends. It’s a hot topic of debate in the fitness world, so it’s no wonder the general public has a lot of questions about it. The results I’m about to share may surprise you…
Does stretching reduce the risk of developing an injury? There is no conclusive evidence that supports the hypothesis that stretching (pre or post exercise) reduces risk for injury (1-5). Some studies report that stretching immediately before exercise can increase your risk of injury since muscle force generation is decreased immediately following a stretching program, which temporarily impairs the muscle’s ability to absorb loads during activity (1, 2). One study even argued that stretching impairs the body’s protective pain response, resulting in a larger pain tolerance threshold, which can leave individuals more susceptible to injury (4). Instead, research supports strength and conditioning, cross-training, and warm-up activities as the best interventions to reduce risk for injury before engaging in physical activities (1, 2, 4).
Does stretching reduce muscle soreness after my workout? There is no conclusive evidence that supports the hypothesis that stretching (pre or post exercise) reduces muscle soreness following exercise (2, 3, 5). So what should you be doing to help with recovery? Foam rolling immediately after exercise, especially high intensity interval training, has been shown as an effective way to decrease muscle soreness (6,7). Cross-training and/or mixing up your fitness activities on the regular also supports recovery by decreasing overuse of the same tissues day after day (1, 2, 4).
Does stretching improve my athletic performance? There is no conclusive evidence that supports the hypothesis that stretching (pre or post exercise) improves athletic performance (1,2). Studies show that stretching immediately prior to exercise decreases the results on performance tests related to force or power production, and instead recommends the use of dynamic warm-ups, plyometrics, and strength training to enhance athletic performance (1,2, 4). Additional studies have found foam rolling immediately prior to exercise improves mobility and muscle extensibility without impairing athletic performance (6,7).
Should I do dynamic or static stretching? Does it matter? While there doesn’t yet appear to be any strong evidence to support dynamic or static stretching for reducing risk for injury, decreasing muscles soreness, or improving athletic performance; the jury is still out in terms of its benefits when combined with other interventions, or when performed at other times not related to exercise.
Now after reading what I just shared above, you may be thinking, “so should I even be stretching at all?!” My answer…it depends. It depends on why you’re stretching. It depends on your body’s current level of flexibility. It depends on what other activities you blend with your stretching in order to maximize your body’s overall wellness. Remember, these studies were only looking at stretching in isolation; and in isolation stretching does not decrease injury risk or muscle soreness, nor increase athletic performance. However, when combined with warm-ups, strength training, and cross-training, the results change. Stretching is a helpful tool, but should not be the only tool in your toolbox.
So if you’re working on general flexibility, and/or wanting to maintain the range of motion you currently have, stretching is still a useful modality. If you have a need to increase flexibility and mobility prior to exercising, the research recommends foam rolling for a few minutes + a dynamic warm-up (i.e. 10min of light jogging, cycling, or anything that starts to increase your heart rate and blood flow to your tissues) (6,7). These same studies also confirm further benefits of foam rolling for mobility and decreasing muscle soreness post exercise. However, more research still needs to be done to further assess whether static or dynamic stretching has benefits when performed in isolation of a physical activity, and also needs to take into account the effects on non-athlete subjects and those recovering from injuries as currently studies only use healthy athletic subjects.
Future studies…Some researchers believe stretching may be a mode of relaxation for some individuals, and this type of mindfulness activity may positively affect body awareness and could possibly carry over into athletic performance as does visualization training (2). Though further studies need to be done comparing stretching activities against other methods of relaxation to compare its clinical effectiveness. So don’t give up on stretching just yet…just be mindful of why and when you’re doing so.