Should I stretch Before Working Out?

To Stretch or Not to Stretch: Evidence Based and Practical Solutions

We’ve all heard this argument, should we stretch or not before training? I’ve heard all the rumors:

  • I heard that you need to stretch before training so you don’t get injured.
  • I’ve heard that stretching can make you weaker if you do it before lifting.
  • Dynamic Warmups are the new best thing to do before you workout.
  • Stretching should be done to “cooldown”
  • Stretching is dumb, I drink beaver milk everyday to get strong

Alright, I made the last one up, but the other ones are pretty common.  A new article just came out in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.  It was a meta-analysis reviewing 104 studies to see whether or not stretching before exercise was detrimental to performance.  Here’s what the literature says.

  • Static Stretching (holding a given stretch for an extended period of time) led to decreased muscular strength in 1rep max testing as well as muscular explosive strength (Jumping, throwing, sprinting)
  • Strength levels are decreased progressively as stretch duration increases.  (More time stretching = greater decrease in strength)
  • Sports Specific Exercise drills done after static stretching may alleviate the deficits caused by static stretching. (A dynamic warm-up after stretching may make up for any strength deficits created by stretching)
  • Static Stretching may decrease the likelihood of muscular strain injuries.
  • Static Stretching does not appear to decrease the likelihood of overuse injuries.  (Looks like you can’t get away from resting and recovering properly)

Here are some other things to keep in mind that are not from this paper:

  • The effectiveness of static stretching is directly related to how long you hold the stretch (Longer stretch = greater improvement in flexibility)
  • If an athlete is not flexible enough to do certain exercises properly they are at an increased risk of injury (Eg: can’t squat or deadlift without a rounded lower back)
  • People generally hate stretching and never enjoy adding it to their routine.

So here are my recommendations based on this paper and from experience

  • Utilize shorter duration stretches <45 seconds before training addressing tight areas and areas that will need to be loosened for the training session (Eg: stretching the hips before a squatting session).  PNF techniques work really well here.
  • Utilize a dynamic warm-up after static stretching that helps to rev up the nervous system and is specific to the unique challenges of your upcoming workout.
  • Use multiple warm-up sets before going into your work sets on a given lift.
  • Once you’re done your stretching and dynamic warm-up keep your stretching to a minimum between sets of an exercise.  Stretching between sets may feel good but in this case it might be taking away from your performance.
  • Do your longer stretches after training that address your own specific tight areas.

If you are an athlete with excellent flexibility you might be able to get away with no static stretching before training and go right into a dynamic warm-up.  I honestly don’t see too many athletes who are flexible enough to avoid stretching.  If flexibility is holding you back from achieving solid technique on a given exercise then stretch as much as you can before attempting that exercise.  If you can’t squat properly then the last thing you need to worry about is a 5% decrease in maximum quadriceps strength from stretching for too long.

I still recommend static stretching before a training session because if it isn’t taken care of before the session starts there’s about an ice cube’s chance in hell that the athlete is going to stretch after a tough workout.  That being said, if you’re motivated enough the best thing to do is to keep your static stretching sessions separate from your strength training sessions or after your strength sessions.

I always do static stretching before training and can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever missed a max lift because I stretched too much beforehand.  (I knew I shouldn’t have stretched my glutes for 30 seconds before I started my dynamic warmup!)  I usually blame it on a lack of sleep/proper nutrition, too much stress or poor programming.

Keep in mind this article is directed toward the athlete and if max performance is not your goal then go ahead and stretch until your heart is content.

Simic L, Sarabon N, & Markovic G (2012). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports PMID: 22316148

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