Most of us were taught from a young age that we must stretch our muscles before exercising to avoid injury. The truth is that there is no significant research to date that has concluded with certainty that this is true1, however, this does not mean that stretching is not beneficial, and experience shows that stretching can be an important part of people’s everyday lives.

It is important to know what and how to stretch before attempting any new exercise program as there are different types of stretches that each have a slightly different effect. They are:

Static Stretching: Holding a stretch for a long period of time (30 seconds or longer).

Dynamic Stretching: Repeatedly moving into, and out of, a stretch slowly while holding the stretch position for 2 seconds. This is not to be confused with ballistic stretching, where the movement is, as the name implies, very rapid. Ballistic stretching will increase your range of motion, but it is riskier as you are moving quickly with limited control.

The When, Why and How of Stretching
Static stretching is great for anyone who wants to significantly increase their range of motion, but it is important to know that these stretches actually put your muscles to “sleep,” thus lowering the power output2. This is why you might see more static stretching at the end of workouts, when you are looking to wind your muscles down.

We also might recommend static stretches dedicated to specific overactive muscles. In these cases, static stretching can be quite beneficial to quiet down the overactive muscles, allowing other muscles to work as they should, increasing overall performance3. Your overactive muscles tend to be the larger muscle groups that play a primary role in your activity… think, upper trapezius and pectoralis major/minor for those participating in weight-lifting exercise; and hip flexors and hamstrings for those participating in more cardiovascular-type exercises. You may also experience tight muscles as a result of repetitive behaviour, such as long periods of sitting. Working with a physiotherapist can help you identify how your muscle groups are working.

Dynamic stretching however, is a way to loosen muscles prior to activity without turning them off, or putting them to “sleep.” It would make sense that keeping your muscles ready to fire should help prevent injury and improve performance; however, there are not enough studies looking at the relationship between dynamic stretching and injury prevention to say for certain that it would help reduce your risk of injury. Experts are confident, however, that this type of stretching would not negatively impact performance.

What Should You Do With This Information?
Based on all the evidence to date, our best advice would be:

Pre-activity:

  • Statically stretch those muscles that tend to be overactive as mentioned above
  • Dynamically stretch other muscles, such as the glutes, quads, calf and lats, to loosen them up without overdoing it.

Post-activity:

  • Statically stretch all muscles to get them to tone down after that hard work out or game.

Of course, we recommend consulting with an expert in movement before starting any physical activity program. Working with a physiotherapist will help you identify the overactive muscles in your body and provide a comprehensive and individualized-stretching program to help you achieve optimal results.

Resources:

  1. McHugh, Malachy P., and C. H. Cosgrave. “To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports2 (2010): 169-181.
  2. Behm, David G., et al. “Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review.” Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism1 (2015): 1-11.
  3. Ruan, Mianfang, Qiang Zhang, and Xie Wu. “Acute effects of static stretching of hamstring on performance and anterior cruciate ligament injury risk during stop-jump and cutting tasks in female athletes.” Journal of strength and conditioning research5 (2017): 1241.

Article: By Mike Wadie, Registered Physiotherapist