If you’ve read anything on this topic in the past fifteen years or so, then you’ve already heard what I’m about to tell you. But if not, here’s a bombshell to kick us off: you don’t need to stretch before exercising.
I’m not really one for bombshells though. Black and white statements like that, though they may suit a blog tagline, tend to obscure the richer palette of what is true and what is helpful. I’ve actually put off writing about this for years, because I knew I wouldn’t have the time (nor the reader interest?!) to do the topic justice. But after another patient asked about this the other day and I found myself launching into an answer, I figured I should finally put a few points down. That’s right, I’m going dot points!
- Previous lore held that you should always stretch before exercise; here we’re talking about static stretching.
- Stretching was thought to prevent injury, reduce muscle soreness and improve performance.
- But this all changed. These notions were largely shown to be false.
- The change followed studies indicating that stretching doesn’t actually prevent injuries. This was largely due to a couple of large and high-quality experiments in 1998 and 2000 which used the Army as subjects. These were so convincing that no one really dared/bothered to try again for a while. An internet based study in 2009, which was cleverly done but by its nature not as scientifically rigorous, hinted that stretching may reduce certain muscle injuries by a little bit.
- There were also good quality studies proving that stretching doesn’t change muscle soreness, whether before exercise, after exercise or both.
- As far as performance goes, several studies made headlines by indicating that stretching makes things worse if you’re measuring strength and power. For most sports, lots of stretching would be detrimental. Sports that reward maximal flexibility however (martial arts, gymnastics) may be different.
- Another shift occurred when studies showed the changes from stretching aren’t necessarily physical. It’s always been easy to imagine a stretched muscle being longer or suppler, but it seems just as likely that stretching works via changes in our nervous system and how easily we tolerate stretch. Fascinating right?!
So that’s a summary of all the best work by researchers on the topic.
Is it enough to firmly challenge the historical notion that stretching is necessary before exercise? YES.
Does it cover everything and prove that stretching is always a waste of time? NO. It can’t, and we need to consider a few more things.
So hang in there readers! In part two of this blog, I’ll be taking you through a pragmatic case for how to decide what stretching, if any, is right for you.
- Herbert et al (2011) Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise (Review.) Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 7.
- Kay and Blazevich (2012) Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise 44(1): 154-164
- Pope et al (1998) Effects of ankle dorsiflexion range and pre-exercise calf muscle stretching on injury risk in Army recruits. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy 44:165-172
- Pope et al (2000) A randomized trial of pre-exercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 32: 271-277