We did it in gym class, and for a lot of us, it's an almost automatic part of the exercise routine: Warm up by contorting our bodies and holding stretches until we feel a pleasant release. Hold a 60-second quad stretch, then it's time to hit the track and weights, right? According to science, only if you want to be slow and weak. A series of new studies supports movement-specific dynamic warm-ups as a better way to prep for performance.
What's the Deal
Greatist has written about the potential dangers of static stretching before exercise. Now, research supporting that idea is finally gaining serious traction The effect of static stretching on phases of sprint performance in elite soccer players. Sayers, A.L., Farley, R.S., Fuller, D.K., et al. Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2008 Sep;22(5):1416-21.. The New York Times recently wrote on two new studies — with different methodologies — that illustrate the anti-performance effects of static stretching pre-workout Acute effect of passive stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. Gergley, J.C. Department of Kinesiology and Human Science, Stephen F. Austin State University. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013 April;27(4):973-7. Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Simic, L., Sarabon, N., Markovic, G. Motor Control and Human Performance Laboratory, University of Zagreb. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2013 Mar;23(2): 131-48.. The first study, conducted at Stephen F. Austin State University, showed significant strength impairment in individuals who practiced static stretching before lifting as opposed to those who performed dynamic warm-ups. (Even when a subjects performed both types of warm-up, static stretching seemed to negate the positive performance boost of dynamic moves like explosive lunges.)
The second study by researchers in Croatia looked at a total of 104 previous studies on stretching and athletic performance. Almost across the board — and regardless of age, sex, or fitness level — static stretching before a workout impaired explosive movement and strength performance Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Simic, L., Sarabon, N., Markovic, G. Motor Control and Human Performance Laboratory, University of Zagreb. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. 2013 Mar;23(2): 131-48.. And while more research is needed to determine exaclty why static stretching hurts our performance so much, it's likely that loosening muscles and tendons in the "traditional" manner leaves them less able to move quickly and on command come workout time.
Is It Legit?
Yep. We're all about using stretching and other techniques to improve the body's range of motion, but a lot of the more common mobility-boosting moves are better performed after a workout (or as a nice break from the computer screen). We know it's tough, but before hitting the trail or treadmill, just say "no" to those marathon stretches.
Instead, opt for a dynamic warm-up consisting of moves that prepare the body for the specific activity to come (think plyometric movements like skipping and jump squats or explosive push-ups if you're about to hit the bench press). Dynamic moves are also great at elevating heart rate before more intense exercise, which can prep the nervous system for peak output. Happy exercising!
Photo by Ben Draper