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Stretch Before a Workout – Is It Necessary?

Do you stretch before a workout session? If so, why? What are you trying to accomplish?

Pre-Workout Stretching – Is It Necessary?

Key Terms

  • Static Passive (SP): no movement of the joint while stretching a relaxed muscle
  • Dynamic Active (DA) movement of the joint while contracting the muscle (or opposite muscle) being stretched (e.g. leg swings)

To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

Do you stretch before a workout session?  If so, why? What are you trying to accomplish?  If you are like most, then you probably stretch to “loosen up’, enhance your performance and reduce your risk of injury.  But, did you know that you could be doing more harm than good depending on what type of stretching you perform?

Stretch Before A Workout Session??

Research on pre-workout stretching over the past two decades has shed some light on the question “To stretch or not to stretch before a workout?” Original research suggested that stretching might enhance athletic performance, elongate muscle and tendon, increase joint mobility and prevent injury.  Recently, researchers have been challenging these old experiments and the effectiveness of various stretch programs. The purpose of this review is to update the fitness professional with current scientific findings regarding the value of stretching during the warm-up phase of a workout.

Pre-workout Stretching and Injury Prevention

For decades, fitness professionals, coaches and trainers have purported the importance of stretching prior to a workout or competitive event.  Initially, research demonstrated a reduction of muscular injuries in those who performed stretching prior exercising (3, 4, 12).  However, more recent and better-designed studies have shown pre-workout stretching, specifically Static Passive (SP) stretch before a workout, to be more harmful than beneficial (2,14,15).  Lally (7) surveyed 6,000 marathon runners (from the same race) and reported a significant increase in number of injuries in those subjects that performed SP stretching prior to the event.  Another study by Liebesman and Cafarelli (8), demonstrated greater joint instability in subjects who performed SP stretching prior to exercise, and may predispose participants to injury.  In addition, a 2004 review of the literature on stretching and injury prevention (14) stated that “there is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue routine stretching before or after exercise to prevent injury among competitive or recreational athletes”. Finally, another research review in 2008 (15), concluded that static stretching was ineffective in reducing the incidence of exercise-related injury.

Take Home Message:

There is very little evidence that suggests pre-workout stretching can prevent injury.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t stretch at all before exercising; it just means that you shouldn’t believe you are safe from injury just because you stretch before a workout session.

Stretching and Force Production (strength)

Pre-exercise SP stretching may result in a decrease in muscular force production (1, 5, 9).  Using a variety of different stretching techniques on the Achilles tendon, Rosenbaum and Hennig (11), showed stretching to cause a muscle to over-relax, increasing its “tendon slack”.  This “slack”, showed a delay in the muscle’s force production and its ability to exert full force output on its bony attachment site.  Metaphorically, it is like pulling on a ship’s rope that has an extra 10 feet of slack in it; little “pull” force is exerted on the ship until the rope slack is first eliminated.  This force production delay may also be responsible for many acute injuries (2).  Other investigators have shown a decrease in isometric contractile force for up-to one hour following SP stretching (5).  In addition, repeated sets of SP stretching have been shown to decrease the reflex sensitivity and activity of muscle spindles resulting in a decrease in reaction time and muscular force production (1).

Take Home Message

Pre-workout SP stretching does not appear to enhance one’s strength (force production) during a workout.  Avoid static stretches prior to your workout.

Stretching and Performance

Little research exists supporting the claim that pre-activity stretching enhances athletic performance (2).  Kokkonen et al. (6), demonstrated a decrease in 1 RM knee flexion and extension following stretching.  Nelson et al. (10), reported a decrease in the squat and vertical jump performance of untrained men following a passive stretch routine. Behm and Chaouachi (13) found that Dynamic Active (DA) stretching may enhance physical performance over SP stretching.  Finally, 2013 research review (16) showed that static stretching did not enhance athletic strength, power or performance and should be avoided.

Take Home Message

Performing a DA stretch before a workout as opposed to SP stretching

Recommendation – should you stretch before a workout?

No to static stretching and yes to dynamic stretching. To get the most out of your warm-up, begin with a mild aerobic activity for 5-10 minutes (e.g. treadmill, stationary bike, jogging) followed by sport related DA stretches.  Start these DA stretches gradually and then increase the rate and intensity of these movements over a period of 5-10 minutes.  Now you are ready for action!

Happy Training!

Andre Noel Potvin, founder Infofit


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