Should you stretch before your sport?


cat stretching

This cat thinks it’s a good idea to stretch as a warm up. (photo by naitokz via Flickr)

Gretchen Reynolds of the NY Times Well Blog posted another article today about stretching. If you read my post about her interview on NPR last year, you know I don’t agree with her stance on stretching. Well, she’s at it again with more evidence to back her case.

The crux of the argument is in this paragraph where she summarizes the findings of some studies recently done on pre-activity static stretching:

The numbers, especially for competitive athletes, are sobering. According to their calculations, static stretching reduces strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent, with the impact increasing in people who hold individual stretches for 90 seconds or more. While the effect is reduced somewhat when people’s stretches last less than 45 seconds, stretched muscles are, in general, substantially less strong.

I don’t disagree with this statement, really. When you stretch a muscle, you inhibit it, and you make it effectively less strong and less powerful (for a time). That is, in my opinion, not up for debate. What is up for debate is saying static stretching shouldn’t be a part of any warm up, which is often how her articles and interviews come across.
The article really should be called “reasons not to do long stretches on muscles just before using them for high intensity activity where every last bit of output is required.” Instead, the article seems to suggest that you should just do dynamic warmup exercises and be ready to rock and roll.
Setting aside a huge body of anecdotal evidence (which you can read yourself in the comments section of the article), there is a theoretical basis for stretching before participating in whatever your sport of choice is.
For average Joes and Janes who spend 8-18 hours sitting per day, you have some muscles that have grown accustomed to a functionally shortened position and those that have become inhibited by being squashed all day. Essentially, everything on your front side has gotten into a shortened state, and everything on your back side gets weak (whether your hamstrings get shortened up as well seems to vary). Hip flexors shorten, you become quad (thigh muscle) dominant, and your butt and hammies check out. You are not going to be operating with optimal biomechanical efficiency standing or walking.  Now you want to go run a 10k.
Can you do it? You might be able to, depending on where your body’s at now. Will it be comfortable? Might be fine this week. Maybe this whole month. Maybe even this whole year! But misusing your body does eventually take its toll, whether it be with knee pain, hip stiffness, foot pain, back pain etc. etc.
For weekend warriors, it’s a much, much better idea to try to restore proper muscle balance. Stretch (read: inhibit) the shortened, facilitated muscles (usually the front side) so that you have a better chance to properly activate the back side (here’s where you can use those dynamic warm ups!). Even better than stretching only pre-activity, make stretching a daily habit for those muscles that need stretching and activating those muscles that need activating.
I know if I don’t use static stretching as part of my warm ups for hockey, my body is less able to do the things it needs to do, and my performance — as a whole — suffers. It’s the same idea that drives professional NHL goalies like Miika Kiprusoff to stretch for literally hours on game day.  If you stretch for proper muscular balance and overall performance and endurance it’s a great idea. If you are looking at narrow measurements like explosive performance in narrow bands of activity, as Gretchen Reynolds does, it’s a bad idea. Figure out which applies to you and adapt as necessary.

About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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