The Real Truth About Pre-Workout Stretching

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Time to Stretch?

When we talk about our exercise routines, we usually focus on what happens during the workout: The proper form, the number of repetitions, engaging the correct muscles, and so on – all elements of a successful routine, right? But, if you’re not following the right steps before you exercise, you’ll risk sabotaging your results and weakening your muscles. But, when people hear about those studies, they’re often confused: “Does this mean stretching is actually bad? Okay, guess I’ll skip it altogether.”

Not so fast! Before you make a hasty decision, let’s consider all of the evidence. The road to uncovering the truth about stretching is one that leads to a bunch of digital e-doctors who live for stretching the truth. To help de-cloud a heap of jumbled research, we turned to David Behm, a Sports Medicine researcher  who’s performed his own impressive studies on the topic.

As a savvy researcher himself, David can’t help but knowledge the inconsistencies within stretching research over the years. “There’s a lot of confusion in the literature, but mostly in the public about whether static stretching actually improves injury risk.” What’s the underlying issue? For starters, we can blame the conditions in which researchers were measuring these effects.

“You look at all these studies, and many of them just aren’t realistic,” says Behm discussing the preceding research findings. “They’d go in and have their subjects do all this stretching without a warm-up before hand and without an activity afterwards, and they’d say ‘Oh okay, static stretching causes impairments,’ but there’s so much more to the story.”

To go above and beyond, Behm and his colleagues  wanted to  look at all those studies. With over 150 static stretching studies and 550 dynamic studies, they broke them down into what was realistic and wasn’t by selecting studies that actually incorporated warm ups. Thus, providing people with a better understanding of what the research really means.

In recent years, a mounting body of evidence has shown that performing static stretches before a workout is like stretching a frozen rubber band, as it pulls apart and weakens the fibers. For example, in one Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study, researchers found that static stretching before performing a squat may reduce lower-body strength and stability. Likewise, when researchers examined 104 studies on pre-workout static stretching for a review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, they concluded that static stretches reduce strength, power, and explosive performance. This lead the authors to write that you should avoid static stretching before a workout.

Behm’s study, on the other hand, did find that static stretching would decrease those incidents when incorporated with a warm-up routine. Primarily, the team hoped to explore the shift from static stretching or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching within a warm-up to a greater emphasis on dynamic stretching. According to the concluded findings, there’s no evidence as to whether there are any “psychological or group–team cohesion” influences on muscle stretching, but all forms of muscle stretching have been proven to provide a significant acute range of motion benefit. In short, no matter the form of stretching you commit to, doing so can be a really good thing if your muscles have been prepped.

“My colleagues and I wanted to try and clarify those studies for the public. Maybe there is some confusion, but I think that lies in clumping everything together,” he says. “In static stretching without a warmup, we found definition impairments in performance.”

So no, you can’t just show up, start stretching and jump on the court expecting to efficiently play basketball. That’s where you find performance decrements. “You need to do an aerobic warm-up for at least 5-10 minutes,” Behm advises. “Then, you should do some static stretching for less than 60 seconds per muscle group. You’ll have the best of both worlds by being able to perform at your highest level and have a lesser chance of getting injured.”

For more on David Behm’s views on stretching, check out his podcast here.