by Kaetlin Zink
Although stretching before exercise has long been viewed as beneficial for athletes and fitness lovers alike, the real benefits remain largely disputed. This is partially because different forms of stretching can affect our bodies in a unique way depending on the exercise. Other factors, such as a person’s susceptibility to injury or natural flexibility level, can also influence the extent to which stretching is actually boosting one’s performance.
Only recently have more conclusive findings been drawn from a current publication in the Journal for Sports Medicine. By breaking down stretching into three subcategories, and then seeing how each type affects a person’s performance during three types of physical activity — strength and power-based, speed and agility-based, or endurance-based activities — the authors were able to make meaningful comparisons.
While some activities either delve into each of these subdivisions or simultaneously fall outside these subdivisions, the authors strongly feel that this categorization has served as the most helpful way for both coaches and athletes to find the appropriate fit for their personalized fitness program.
Types of Stretching
According to the journal report mentioned above, while other types exist, the authors considered the 3 major types of stretching to include the following: static, dynamic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching (PNF).
Static stretching is the one that’s most commonly heard of and performed; for example, “holding” a stretch with a hand or using a stretch band. The purpose of this kind of stretching is to maintain a slightly challenging position for approximately 10 to 30 seconds, allowing the muscle or joint being stretched to relax and expand on its own.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, entails stretching while in motion. It is often called a dynamic warm-up because it combines full movement with stretching to activate specific muscles you desire to isolate during the exercise. A typical dynamic stretch would be a lunge with a twist, which engages the hips, legs and core muscles. Regardless of whether you’re lunging for a soccer ball, or doing a weighted lunge at the gym, the muscles utilized during the actual workout will always be warmed up in a dynamic stretch prior.
The final type, referred to as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, requires stretching and contraction of a muscle to allow for more flexibility in the target muscle. In the picture above, Master Personal Trainer Dewey Lightcap passively guides Garrett into the hamstring stretch. After 5 seconds, he has Garrett press his leg forward, allowing him to contract the muscle, after which he guides him back into the passive stretch, allowing for a deeper stretch each time.
Because there isn’t enough research done on this last type of stretching, the remainder of the article will focus on the effects of static and dynamic stretching.
Effects of Static Stretching Before Exercise
Strength and Power-Based Activities:
While findings were mixed, the bulk of the research indicates that static stretching immediately before strength/power-oriented activities, like heavy lifting, or sports that require power and intensity, caused a decrease in performance level. Meanwhile, other sources have found static stretching to have little to no impact on performance.
For example, the Journal for Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness states that if an appropriate amount of time (15 minutes or so) is left in between static stretching and the desired activity, or if static stretching is followed by a warm-up, strength and power will not be interfered with during performance.
Speed and Agility- Based Activities:
While most research finds pre-workout static stretching to negatively impact performance, multiple sources, including the Journal of Strength and Conditioning and the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, show these effects may be reversed when a dynamic stretch/warm-up is applied after the static stretching and before the workout. Findings also suggest that an individual’s flexibility level influences the extent to which static stretching impacts performance regarding these activities.
According to the 2009 edition of Sports Medicine, “subjects with low baseline flexibility scores had a performance benefit from static stretching, with an improvement in 40-m sprint time, whereas those subjects that had higher baseline flexibility scores were affected adversely by static stretching, with slower sprint times.”
Endurance- Based Activities:
Overall, research has not been able to determine how static stretching before long distance activities affects one’s performance. However, when static stretching had taken place beforehand, not one study found an increase in performance level.
Effects of Dynamic Stretching Before Exercise
Strength and Power- Based Activities
If dynamic stretching is done right before the power dependent activity or sport, studies show performance level may indeed be enhanced. When dynamic stretching occurs at a more rapid pace, research from the European Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that performance can be altered in a positive manner. Additionally, according to various editions of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, dynamic stretching is said to improve countermovement jump performance when paired with a warm-up. In 2009, the International Journal of Sports Medicine found golf players to have enhanced ball and club head speeds when dynamic stretching was done prior.
Speed and Agility- Based Activities
Though there is little evidence, research demonstrates that performance during these activities actually increases when dynamic stretching occurs before the event or exercise. For avid runners, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (2010) found dynamic stretching to increase 20-m sprint times. Additionally, when one or two sets of dynamic stretches are done mid-warm-up, 20-m sprint time improvements were also found. However, in 2012, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that performing multiple sets (3 or more) of dynamic stretches induced exhaustion and impeded 10 and 20-m sprint times.
Endurance- Based Activities
Lack of research in this area has prevented authors from generating any affirmative answers regarding the ways dynamic stretching impacts performance during these activities.
Because even the latest research surrounding the effects of differing stretches remains indecisive, it is difficult to deem whether pre-workout stretching will hurt or excel performance. But by following the suggestions above, you can start to tailor your pre-workout stretching routine to see what does or doesn’t work to ensure personal progression.