Stretching & Performance: What Athletes Need To Know
As an athlete, stretching has been a staple for most as part of a warm-up routine. However, the type of stretching prescribed before athletic events and even workouts has been a topic of controversy.
Over the past decade, static stretching has come under fire as a wrong choice before performing workouts and participating in athletic events. Studies have shown that doing so can adversely affect strength and power. As a result, many have turned towards dynamic stretching, where instead of holding the stretch, controlled movement is involved (1, 2).
However, as with most exercise science topics, there is more to the story. Research is beginning to show that while static stretching might have a negative influence on performance, that effect depends on when you stretch and perhaps your familiarity with stretching routines (3-7).
In this article, we’ll dive into what research says about stretching and performance and consider best practices for using different stretching modalities both during training and as a part of a warm-up routine.
Is Static Stretching Bad For Performance?
While using a warm-up before any athletic event is standard practice, the idea of using static stretches, where you hold a stretch in place for a certain amount of time, has become a bit taboo.
At first, many professionals simply looked at static stretching from a range of motion and flexibility standpoint. It has been theorized that by stretching muscles for a given amount of time, structures within the muscle and tendons will relax, allowing for a broader range of motion and potentially, reduced risk of injury (8).
Additionally, it’s also thought that regularly stretching might encourage these structures to allow for greater acute muscle lengthening, in effect, allowing for a greater range of motion (9).
However, once research began to look into the effects of static stretching and performance, it was found that this increase in relaxation could potentially limit the muscle's ability to contract. Mostly, lengthening the muscle would restrict the ability for the contractile components to function optimally while also limiting the ability to store and use elastic energy (1, 2).
Because of these studies suggesting reduced performance, many professionals have turned towards dynamic stretching, where the stretch involves controlled movement as a primary practice.
What research is beginning to show, however, is that while static stretching might reduce performance when used immediately before the activity, it appears these effects don't last as long as previously thought.
Additionally, the details of these studies show us that while static stretching might not be the worst idea, its effect on performance relies on the time of stretching relative to activity, the duration of the stretch, and potentially your athletic ability.
Let's take a look at some studies that reveal how stretching can influence performance.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching In Amateur Soccer Players
In a study out of the Democritus University of Thrace, 16 amateur soccer players underwent two different stretching protocols and then performed sprints to understand the effect of static stretching (3).
Within these warm-up routines, the soccer players completed a general warm-up, completed a 20-meter sprint test, stretched either statically or dynamically for 6 minutes total, completed another 20-meter sprint, performed a 13-minute soccer-specific warm-up, and then finally completed another 20-meter sprint.
When researchers looked at sprint performance for each routine, they found that after static stretching, these participants sprinted significantly slower, which is consistent with some previous findings (1, 2, 3).
However, once the athletes completed their dynamic warm-up routine, their sprint performance improved relative to baseline. Virtually, while static stretching led to a performance decline immediately after the stretch, the incorporation of dynamic stretching replenished sprint ability (3).
Static Stretching & Vertical Jump Performance in Division II Athletes
In a different study from the Korea Institute of Sport Science, 26 Division II athletes volunteered to determine how different durations of static stretching might impact vertical jump performance (4).
These athletes performed a five-minute, light warm-up and, after a five-minute rest, performed three maximum-intensity vertical jumps, meant to provide a baseline of performance.
After this baseline vertical jump test, the athletes, in a random order, performed four stretches for 10 seconds each or 30 seconds each. After completing their stretch routine, they performed vertical jumps once more.
Surprisingly, the results showed that neither stretching protocol influenced jumping ability. While it appears that static stretching totaling up to 120 seconds in duration had no adverse effect on performance, it also didn't lead to any performance benefit (4).
It is, however, entirely plausible that the lack of performance decrements was due to the athletic status of the subjects, suggesting that experience might play a role in how stretching influences performance (4).
Static, Dynamic & PNF Stretching On Vertical Jump Performance
In another fascinating study out of the University of Teesside, researchers tested how different stretching methods performed for long durations influence jumping ability. Eighteen males were recruited and performed three different stretching routines before performance testing (5).
After baseline performance testing, subjects performed ten total minutes of stretching. Each participant performed static stretches, dynamic stretches, PNF stretching, and no stretching at all on separate occasions. Then, the participants re-tested jump ability.
Importantly, PNF stretching is an assisted stretching technique where the subject contracts their muscle for 5 seconds and then relaxes while the coach actively stretches the muscle. This is a common practice, particularly for high-level athletics (10).
After each stretching routine, the subjects then performed three static jumps, and three countermovement jumps an additional six times for 60 minutes after each stretching procedure. This method provides greater insight into not only the short-term but also the long-term effects of each stretching routine on performance, especially as the event progresses.
Similar to previous studies, both static and PNF stretching led to decreased performance, but surprisingly, only for up to 15 minutes after the stretches (5).
After 15 minutes, performance returned to normal (Bradley, 2007)
These researchers found that after 15 minutes of jumping, this decline in performance no longer existed. In fact, performance for all stretching routines eventually led to improved performance when compared to no stretching at all (5).
Based on these findings, it does appear that more prolonged duration static stretching can initially lead to hampered performance, but only for around 15 minutes after ending the stretch. Theoretically, if there is an adequate window of time, such as 30 minutes between stretching and performance, performance won't decline but might improve (5).
Stretching and Performance in Semi-Professional Basketball Players
Sprinting and countermovement jumps make up a large percentage of the movement required during a basketball game. Because these movements are so integral to basketball performance, testing the effect of stretching on these variables is valuable.
Researchers out of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki had 20 semi-professional basketball players complete 5 minutes of either static or dynamic stretching for a total of 20 seconds for each stretch. Shortly after, these athletes then repeated 10-meter sprints and countermovement jump tests (6).
Interestingly, even though these movements were performed only 60 seconds after stretching, static stretching had no influence, either positively or negatively. However, it appears that when the athletes stretched dynamically, they showed significant improvements in both tests (6).
These findings suggest that stretch duration plays a big role in whether static stretching limits performance. They also suggest that the same amount of time dedicated to dynamic stretching improves performance, showing a clear winner here (6).
These findings again suggest that athletic ability and experience might influence whether static stretching adversely affects performance.
Revisiting The Avoidance Of Static Stretching
While these studies are only a few that have looked at the effects of static stretching, the majority of them tell a similar story, which is fascinating.
When You Stretch Matters
For most studies that test the effect of static stretching on performance, researchers require the subjects to perform within a minute or two of ceasing the stretch. Except for some athletes, this typically leads to an acute reduction in performance (3, 5).
However, as movement continues, these decrements in performance seem to decline, and in some cases, performance improves (3, 5).
Considering these findings, it does seem that longer-duration static stretching can reduce performance. Still, if you have an ample window of time between the stretch and the event, this decline in performance might not exist or, will at the very least, diminish.
Based on these findings, if you do decide to use static stretches, you should have a minimum of 15 minutes between stretching and your event. Otherwise, your performance might suffer.
Dynamic Stretching Seems To Be A Better Choice
If one thing is clear, it's that dynamic stretching is almost always a better choice. Even when athletes show a decline in performance because of static stretching, some studies have shown that stretching dynamically can even reverse these adverse effects (3, 5, 6).
If you choose to use static stretching because you feel it helps with your range of motion, I recommend that you do so at least 30 minutes before your athletic event and follow those stretches with more dynamic, sport-specific stretches as a continuing warm-up.
Doing so will likely allow for better movement but also potentially improve performance as a result.
Athletic Status Appears To Matter
Another consideration here is that your familiarity with stretching and overall athletic status probably plays a role in how stretching influences performance.
For instance, when division II athletes were stretched statically for 10 to 30 seconds each, they didn't experience any adverse effect of the stretch. When semi-professional basketball players stretched statically for five minutes total, they also displayed no decline in performance and again, improved after incorporating dynamic stretching (4, 6).
Another study testing elite gymnasts found that when these athletes stretched for 30 seconds at a time with 30 seconds of rest for 90 seconds total, they improved jump performance. Since these elite athletes were likely familiar with flexibility and stretching routines, including this protocol didn’t reduce performance at all and actually improved it (7).
When static stretching is tested in lower-level athletes, it appears that the adverse effect of stretching is more apparent. It seems that familiarity with stretching and the ability to recover does play a significant role in how stretching influences performance.
Working On Flexibility & Range Of Motion Alone
While most studies have explicitly tested how stretching influences athletic performance as part of a warm-up routine, it's essential to consider the potential benefits of working on flexibility and mobility as standalone workouts.
Improving overall flexibility and range of motion has some specific benefits that are attractive for most athletes. While improved flexibility can potentially reduce the risk of injury when a muscle stretches, a greater range of motion can allow an athlete to move more freely and efficiently.
It's also worth considering that having a broader range of motion can lead to a reduction in pain experienced when moving joints, which can improve your ability to generate power and force efficiently and with less concern. As an athlete, this is beneficial.
Further, in studies testing athletes that have a high level of flexibility, such as elite gymnasts, we don't see any adverse effect of stretching but rather an improvement in performance as a result (7, 11).
Mostly, familiarity with stretching and flexibility can augment performance and suggests that dedicating time to stretching outside of a warm-up routine might be advantageous (7).
How To Incorporate Flexibility Training
Performing workouts individually aimed at improving range of motion and flexibility can be beneficial for distinct reasons. By performing specific exercises involving stretching, you'll dedicate a more considerable amount of time towards stretching but also avoid any potential adverse effects of the stretch on performance.
Stick With Static Stretching
While a majority of studies suggest that dynamic stretching is the right option for a pre-event warm-up, research indicates that during dedicated flexibility training, you should prioritize static stretching above all else (12).
When using static stretches, you’re taking the length of your muscle to its extreme. In doing so, structures within the muscle where it connects with the tendon allow the muscle to relax and lengthen. If regularly performed, the muscle can regularly relax, allowing for greater freedom of movement (8).
What studies show is that using static stretches allows for the most significant improvement in range of motion over time compared to other methods, regardless of the stretching duration (12).
For example, one study showed that stretching dynamically for a total of 600 seconds per week for six weeks only improved range of motion by roughly 11%. In comparison, another study employing just 300 seconds of static stretching per week for six weeks improved range of motion by 22%, essentially doubling the benefit (12-16).
It does still appear that dynamic stretching before a workout or athletic event is the right move. If, however, you're dedicating specific workouts to stretching and flexibility, static stretching is the better option.
Total Stretching Time Is Most Important
According to research, improvements in range of motion and flexibility seem to rely on the type of stretch and the total duration that you stretch over time. Whether you do many short-duration stretches or few longer-duration stretches doesn’t matter as much as the whole time spent stretching (12).
According to one recent systematic review, the compilation of research on stretching duration suggests that if you want a significant improvement in range of motion, you should stretch each muscle group for a minimum of three to five minutes total each week (12, 14).
Importantly, this review also suggests that anything longer than five minutes per muscle group each week is not entirely beneficial.
Studies testing close to 15 minutes of total stretching duration per week, for instance, only provided a marginal benefit over stretching for five minutes (12-16).
I do, however, suggest that you regularly measure changes in flexibility and realize that five minutes may be a minimum threshold for someone just beginning a stretch routine.
For instance, with resistance training, beginners often attain substantial gains in muscle size and strength because their response to the training is very robust.
As the beginner becomes more experienced, improvements slow and more intense and frequent exercise is required to show additional improvement. It's entirely plausible that the same trend would occur when attempting to improve flexibility over time (17).
While three to five minutes seems to be a minimum for beginners, as you become more flexible, longer durations of stretching across each week might be necessary for additional benefit.
Perform Flexibility Training Away From Other Activities
If you're hoping to perform dedicated flexibility training, it's best to do so at a time where you're not actively recovering from an event or required to perform afterward. For instance, you should do this training on separate days or a few hours post-workout.
While some of the studies mentioned previously show that static stretching doesn’t lead to drastic performance decline, they do show that impairment is possible. If you’re an athlete, these small impairments could be the difference between winning and losing (3, 5, 6).
Just as you would dedicate specific time to your regular workouts, make sure that you commit specific time to work on your mobility and do so away from any event or exercise to avoid limiting performance.
Consistency Matters For Range Of Motion & Flexibility
Just as with an exercise routine, if you regularly stretch and improve range of motion, you'll need to stretch consistently to maintain those improvements.
For instance, one study recruited subjects to stretch their hamstrings daily across four weeks and resulted in significant improvements in range of motion. At the four week mark, half of the subjects continued to stretch two to three times per week while the other half stopped stretching altogether.
The researchers found that just two to three days of stretching helped to maintain range of motion improvements and showed a tendency to continue improving. When stretching stopped, those subjects displayed a significant decline in their range of motion compared to the end of the initial four weeks (18).
While incorporating a stretching routine can undoubtedly improve your flexibility and range of motion, you'll need to continue stretching if you hope to maintain those improvements (18).
Based on the current evidence, it appears that static stretching can inhibit performance, but only for a short time after performing the stretch. When dynamic stretches are used after static, most of these impairments dissolve (3, 5, 6).
It also appears that training status also plays a role in whether stretching mitigates or augments performance. These studies show that if you're a more elite athlete, stretching will probably lead to improvements rather than impairments (4, 6, 7).
Finally, it appears that stretching should be a standalone practice since doing so can potentially improve your range of motion. However, if you hope to maintain those improvements, consistent stretching will be a requirement (17, 18).
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