The use of stretching before and after training programmes of competitive & recreational athletes has been historically commonplace. But, are there any benefits from doing so, or have we simply been following blindly?
Warm-ups, which increase blood flow into the involved muscles and elevate muscular temperature, are performed for 5 to 15 minutes before engaging in the main exercise. Performing warm-ups can lower the risk of injuries in the muscles and tendon as well as reduce heavy loads on the heart, which can occur when high intensity exercises are suddenly started.
Stretching is but a subset of the entire warm-up routine. Stretching is most commonly performed to increase the range of motion of joints and is effective for the maintenance and enhancement of exercise performance and flexibility as well as for injury prevention. In addition, stretching during warm-ups provide psychological stability, preparation and confidence for exercise performance as it is often part of a pre-workout routine. However, there have been misconceptions with regards to the use of stretching and in this article, we hope to breakdown and debunk some of these common misconceptions.
1.Does Stretching Reduce Muscle Soreness?
No. There is little to not effect of stretching on muscle soreness after physical activity. In fact, a journal article from the Research Quarterly for Exercise & Sport showed that prolonged intense static stretching might even lead to muscle damage. It is true that stretching does increase blood flow to the targeted muscle which helps in flushing out metabolic waste and reduce soreness (inflammation). However, this increment in blood flow is not significant and other activities such as low intensity running or walking will be better suited in helping with muscle soreness.
2.Does Stretching Reduce the Risk of Injury?
Yes, but exercise specific. Currently, there are mixed results and consensus on the impact of stretching on injury occurrence. However, for studies that have shown positive results, it shows that stretching can reduce the risk of injury by increasing the flexibility of the muscle-tendon unit. This is especially so in exercises and sports that involve high intensity explosive movements such as jumping, sprinting, or quick changes of direction. Other activities such as low to moderate intensities of running, jogging or cycling, and stretching have not been shown to have any impact on the risk of injury.
3.Does Stretching Before Exercise Improve Performance?
Yes and no. Static stretching (holding the muscle at tension) has been shown to diminish muscle strength and power when performed before exercising. Dynamic stretching (active stretching where the muscle and tendons go through the whole range of motion), on the other hand, seems to improve performance and sport-specific range of motion.
So why is stretching still important? Stretching increases our range of motion and flexibility. Some exercises such as long-distance running require much less range of motion in the major joints of propulsion compared with other activities such as ballet dance or gymnastics. In practical terms, the individual must have a sufficient range of motion in their joints before performing their particular exercise adequately. Stretching keeps the muscles flexible, strong, and healthy and we need that flexibility to maintain a range of motion in the joints. Without it, the muscles shorten and become tight. When called upon, they will feel weak and unable to extend fully. This puts us at risk of joint pain, strains, and muscle damage.
Additionally, low to moderate intensity stretching can be a good form of relaxation and cooling down routine after exercise as it has been shown to improve moods and mental states. Post-exercise stretching also helps to lower your heart rate and relieve some tension in the body before concluding your workout. Stretching is also effective for the treatment and recovery of orthopaedic conditions or injuries, helping with pain management of stiff joints and muscles. It is important to remember that stretching once today will not magically give you perfect flexibility. You have to remain committed to the process and regularly stretch.
So how often should you stretch? How long should you hold a stretch? And how many times should you do each stretch?
A panel of experts convened by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) reviewed a wide range of studies to help answer these questions. Based on the evidence, the panel agreed that:
Healthy adults should do flexibility exercises (stretches, yoga, or tai chi) for all major muscle-tendon groups (neck, shoulders, chest, trunk, lower back, hips, and ankles) at least 2-3 times a week
For optimal results, you should spend a total of 60 seconds on each stretching exercise. If you can hold a particular stretch for 15 seconds, repeating it 3 times would be ideal.
The stretching sensation should feel like your muscles are under tension and not sharp pain. If you feel any sharp pain, please stop immediately and seek medical attention.
Here are some stretches that you can perform before your workout or even at work:
In a Nutshell:
Before exercising, your warm-up routine should only include dynamic stretches, especially so if performing high intensity explosive movements.
Static stretching should only be reserved for sessions that are solely focused on improving flexibility and range of motion.
Stretching to reduce muscle soreness is ineffective and one should consider performing a low intensity workout instead to flush out waste metabolites to reduce muscle inflammation.