Whether you’re new to exercise or a long-term athlete, you’ve probably been told to stretch. Stretching before and after exercise has long been a mainstay of the fitness world, but research over the last 15 years has questioned whether it’s really an effective way to prevent injury or improve performance. A new study out this week helps to clear things up by looking at all of the studies done on stretching over the last two decades. The team found that it might help, but that timing and stretch type are key when it comes to deciding what might be best.
How did the researchers study stretching and what did they find?
The team wrote a review paper, which means they looked through most of the research published in the past to get an overall sense of what the majority of research was saying. They then put all of that information together to give readers a sense of that overall picture.
Static stretching is where you stretch a muscle until you feel the pull or slight discomfort and hold it there. The team found that performance issues after static stretch was mostly related to the amount of time you did it for. More than a minute seemed to lead to worse performance in many studies. Less than a minute didn’t make much of a difference. In terms of injury, there weren’t a lot of studies, but most showed that it didn’t make much of a difference. A few showed that it might help decrease injury and muscle soreness, but it wasn’t the majority. Almost all studies showed better flexibility.
Dynamic stretching involves moving your limbs back and forth repeatedly through a movement similar to something you’ll be doing in a sport. An example would be swinging your leg up until you feel a stretch and then back and forth, each time trying to feel that stretch, before running. While many have praised dynamic stretching as a better way to stretch because it’s closer to the movements you’ll be doing in your sport, the researchers found little evidence to show benefits. The stretches themselves often varied from study to study and the results were conflicting, making it tough to say what the effect was one way or another. Dynamic stretching might be helpful, but there wasn’t enough data to say for sure at this point.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)
This complex-sounding type of stretching basically aims to use muscles to stretch themselves. Every muscle in your body has at least one other muscle that opposes it and moves in the opposite direction. In your arm, for example, your bicep muscle pulls your hand toward your shoulder. Your triceps on the other side of your arm pulls it away. When one of these is working, it stretches the other, which is mainly how PNF works. Most studies for this type of stretching showed it didn’t make much of a difference to performance, but might make a small impact in reducing rates of injury.
Many people also combine a warm-up with stretching, and some have said you should only stretch after warming up, while others have said it doesn’t matter. This study found there wasn’t enough data to say one way or another, but the researchers think stretching and warming up probably work in similar ways to get muscles ready for activity.
What does this mean for me?
While the research doesn’t show a big benefit one way or the other, the team felt that stretching probably wasn’t hurting and may be helping in some cases. If you’ve always found stretching to be helpful in getting you ready for a jog or game of basketball, you’re not doing any damage by continuing with that regimen. If you’ve never been one to stretch before sports, you don’t necessarily need to start. If you’re new to sports, stretching might be worth a try. Doing a few sessions with or without stretching can help give you a sense of whether or not you find it worthwhile. The researchers recommend doing static stretching for less than a minute at a time when you’re more than 10 minutes out from whatever you want to do. Dynamic stretching can be better right before a sport to help get your muscles warmed up and ready for action.