Seeing as it's been the prevalent theory since before Richard Simmons was a kid, you can hardly be blamed for thinking that stretching before your workout reduces your chances of injury. Like many theories regarding health and fitness, however, the concept of stretching before vigorous activity has been passed down throughout time from coaches, personal trainers, and TV shows without any real scientific examination. After taking a look at the science behind the practice, we must ask, does it still make sense to stretch before you work out?
Types of Stretching
Before getting into the benefits and disadvantages, it's important to get a sense of the different methods of stretching. Generally, you can lump stretches into one of two categories: static or dynamic. Static stretching involves holding a stretched position for a certain length of time while dynamic stretching involves moving through a range of motion repeatedly. These can be further categorized into passive and active categories. Passive stretches require an external pressure while active stretches are done with only your own muscular force. Passive-static stretching is the most common, and it is this form of warm-up that has come under fire from the scientific community.
A Look at the Research
A 2013 study conducted by Austin State University investigated what effects passive static stretching had on the strength of the participants. Using the one-rep squat as a measuring stick, the scientists found that an 8.36 percent drop in strength and a 22.68 percent drop in stability accompanied their passive stretching routine. According to the study, stretching was not just a superfluous way to start a workout; it actually had a detrimental effect on the workout itself! Researchers at the University of Zagreb in Croatia performed a thorough examination of the science behind stretching to see if that was really the case. Looking through nearly 40 years of stretching science, the researchers found that static stretching was not, by itself, an effective approach to the warm-up. The scientists behind the research stopped short of recommending stretches be left out entirely, but they concluded that stretching by itself was to be avoided. Studies conducted by the University of Northampton and Florida State University found that static stretching did little harm to adherents if the stretches were held for only a brief window of time. The researchers in these studies concluded that passive stretching could be included in a pre-workout routine with little detrimental effect.
To Stretch or Not to Stretch?
Static stretching still has benefits, so don't write it off entirely. If you've suffered injuries or have a limited range of motion, stretching can help stave off the shortening of tendons that occurs with time. Regular stretching can help you retain your flexibility, which in turn can prevent injuries from sneaking up on you. Based on our research, we suggest doing dynamic, active stretches to reduce the chance of injury, and combining them with light cardio for a more well-balanced warm-up. If you're intent on remaining true to passive-static stretching, move it to the end of your workout instead of using it as a warm-up routine. You may just see your workout results take a turn for the better.