People always assume that since I lift weights, I’m not flexible. I blame the bodybuilders who are so big they can’t even bend down to tie their own shoes for that one (but hey, to each their own). Luckily for me, my grandmother is a yoga instructor, and she has been teaching me stretches since I was a baby, so I can tie my shoes on my own. I can even touch my toes. Just don’t ask me to do the splits…
Stretching has many benefits, and if you weren’t able to guess it based off my intro, flexibility and increasing your range of motion is one of them. However, I learned a lot of crazy new information while doing my research into stretching, and although I don’t want to say I’m going to be “myth busting,” I will say that I am going to be sharing with you guys information that is new to me and goes against some previous beliefs that I had.
Stretching, as defined by the holy Wikipedia, “is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon (or muscle group) is deliberately flexed or stretched.” There are then two main types of stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching is probably what you think of when it comes to stretching and it involves holding your body still in a specific position that maximizes muscle tension, usually for 10-30 seconds. This includes touching your toes or pulling your foot up to your butt and holding it there. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand involves actively moving a limb through its full range of motion to its end ranges and repeating (Page, 2012). Some examples of dynamic stretches would be arm circles or leg kicks.
A 2002 systematic review of 5 studies found that stretching before or after exercise does not in fact result in significant decreases in muscle soreness (Herbert, 2002). Another systematic review, this time in 2011 of 12 studies again concluded that neither pre- nor post-exercise stretching decreases muscle soreness (Herbert, 2011).
I had always thought that stretching after your exercise would help decrease soreness but these studies suggest that that is not the case. I guess you learn something new every day!
There seems to be conflicting opinions when it comes to answering the question of whether or not stretching can decrease the chance of exercise-induced injuries. A 2008 systematic review found that 4 studies concluded that static stretching was ineffective at reducing incidence of exercise-related injuries while 1 study found the exact opposite. 3 of the studies then found that static stretching can reduce the chances of musculotendinous (muscle and tendon units) and ligament injuries but has no effect on general “all-injury” risks (Small, 2008).
I then found one study that explained that this confusion could be explained by simply considering the different exercises or sports being played. This study argued that athletes that play sports that involve bouncing and jumping activities such as soccer or basketball would benefit from stretching in order to reduce injury, while athletes who played low-intensity sports such as cycling, or swimming would not benefit from stretching to reduce injury (Witvrouw, 2012).
I had always thought that it was clear that stretching protects you from injuries, but I guess this explains how I still pulled my hamstring last summer while doing sprints even after I stretched.
The most surprising fact I learned is that static stretching before you exercise can decrease strength and performance in running and jumping (Page, 2012)! No wonder I’ve never been able to dunk (definitely has nothing to do with me being under 6 foot)! Static stretching has even been shown to decrease the benefits gained from an active warm-up. Static stretching, after 5-minutes of cycling can decrease the benefits of balance and reaction/movement time that are gained from such a warm-up (Behm, 2004).
This was honestly a little startling to read about as I’ve always done static stretching before I lift weights. I guess I finally have an excuse for not being able to bench 225.
That does not mean that you should not stretch before you workout or exercise though. Dynamic stretching has NOT been found to have the same decreases in strength and performance as static stretching does and has even been found to IMPROVE STRENGTH (Page, 2012). Besides that amazing benefit, stretching (both dynamic and static) has these other great benefits:
1. All stretching, dynamic and static, increases range of motion (ROM). Interestingly enough, it is thought that this increase in ROM is due to an increased tolerance to stretching and not decreased tension of the muscle (Page, 2012). So basically, stretching is a drug that you should get addicted to.
2. Increasing ROM can allow for more freedom of movement while exercising or simply living life, and this delays the reduced mobility that often comes with old age (Lindberg, 2018).
3. Increasing ROM can also lead to improvements of force, power, sprinting, and jumping (Opplert, 2018).
4. Stretching can improve posture (Lindberg, 2018).
5. Lastly, stretching can be good for your mind. Stress and anxiety usually cause your muscles to tighten and tense up and stretching can help release this tension and relax you. You can also try practicing mindfulness meditation while you are stretching in order to magnify your feelings of peace and calming (Lindberg, 2018).
For general overall health and fitness, one should practice static stretching after an active warm-up 2-3 times a week to reduce passive stiffness and increase ROM.
For athletes who compete in more flexible sports such as gymnastics or dance, static stretching would also be of benefit to you.
On the other hand, athletes who compete in running and jumping sports such as basketball or football should practice dynamic stretching before exercise (Page, 2012). (Based on the description, and my own experience since I've done this research, I would say that this goes with weightlifting as well).
So, just to be clear, you should still ALWAYS STRETCH BEFORE YOU EXERCISE--just make sure that it's the right type of stretching. And you can do a simple Google search for “dynamic” or “static” stretches to find some good ones depending on your goals, but also stay tuned to my Instagram, @seagull_strength since I plan on posting some stretching videos eventually!
Behm, David G., et al. “Effect of Acute Static Stretching on Force, Balance, Reaction Time, and Movement Time.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, vol.36, no. 8, 2004, pp. 1397–1402., doi: 10.1249/01.mss.0000135788.23012.5f.
Herbert, R. D. “Effects of Stretching before and after Exercising on Muscle Soreness and Risk of Injury: Systematic Review.” Bmj, vol. 325, no. 7362, 31 Aug. 2002, pp. 468–468., doi: 10.1136/bmj.325.7362.468.
Herbert, Robert D, et al. “Stretching to Prevent or Reduce Muscle Soreness after Exercise.” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2011, doi: 10.1002/14651858.cd004577.pub3.
Lindberg, Sara.“Stretching: 9 Benefits, Plus Safety Tips and How to Start.” Edited by Daniel Bubnis, Healthline, 18 June 2018, www.healthline.com/health/benefits-of-stretching.
Opplert, Jules, and Nicolas Babault. “Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance: An Analysis of the Current Literature.” Sports Medicine, vol. 48, no. 2, Feb. 2018, pp. 299–325., doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0797-9.
Page, Phil. “CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION.” International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, Feb. 2012, doi: PMID: 22319684.
Small, Katie, et al. “A Systematic Review into the Efficacy of Static Stretching as Part of a Warm-Up for the Prevention of Exercise-Related Injury.” Research in Sports Medicine, vol. 16, no. 3, 2008, pp. 213–231., doi: 10.1080/15438620802310784.
“Stretching.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stretching.
Witvrouw, Erik, et al.“Stretching and Injury Prevention.” Sports Medicine, vol. 34, no. 7, 4Sept. 2012, pp. 443–449., doi:10.2165/00007256-200434070-00003.
A special thank you to all my friends and family who have not only supported me on my journey but have helped along the way. None of this would be possible without them. Remember to take time to appreciate those in your lives!
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