Quick quiz: What do you do before you head to the gym, the pool or the golf course?
- Stretch your arms above your head
- A couple of minutes of touching your toes
- A and B
- None of the above
Did you answer A, B, or C? I answered C, and I’m afraid we’re both about as outdated as a pair of spandex pants and an electronic ab belt.
It’s true that most of us have been doing this type of light stretching before a workout without much thought for years. After all, we’ve always been told that it will help us get a better workout and prevent injury.
But, it seems that this type of warm-up simply isn’t necessary anymore. In fact, new research says that static stretching – focusing on a single group of muscles and holding the pose for 20 to 30 seconds — can actually do more harm than good.
Not only is it a waste of time, it can actually impair your workout and help cause an injury.
Give Up The Stretch
Let’s take a look at the two studies that got me re-thinking my pre-workout routine.
First, a new study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at healthy, fit young men who performed standard squats after either stretching their lower bodies or not.1
- The group who stretched had an 8.3 percent decrease in strength.
- They also reported feeling more wobbly and unbalanced than the non-stretching group.
In other words, if you stretch before lifting weights you may actually be more feeble and flimsy than if you don’t stretch.
A second study published in The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports analyzed 104 studies on stretching and determined that static stretching before exercise:2
- Reduced strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5 percent (or even more if the stretch is held for 90 seconds or more)
- Cut muscle power by 2 percent
- Reduced explosive muscular performance by nearly 3 percent
In other words, if you’re trying to fire a strong tennis serve, prevail at plyometrics, or sprint at the start of your next 5K, stretching beforehand will actually be counterproductive, hindering your performance rather than helping it.
Although experts aren’t sure exactly of the cause, it’s probably due in part to the fact that stretching does exactly what we want it to do. It loosens muscles and tendons, and in the process, makes them less able to store energy and spring into action. Sort of like an overstretched rubber band – too loose and too pliable.
The result is that not only will you be unable to move as fast or as freely, you’ll also be in more danger of injury.
Instead, Start In Slow Mo
Instead of stretching, start off by moving the muscles that you’ll be using during the workout. Do some jumping jacks, arm circles, and knee lifts to get the blood flowing to the tissues and your body prepped for exercise.
And this doesn’t mean you should nix stretching altogether. Stretching is a vital part of a workout routine. Richard T. Cotton, MA, American College of Sports Medicine’s National Director of Certification Programs, suggests stretching at least two to three times per week to keep muscles flexible as we age. Just do it after your workout, when your muscles are warm.
He says that in order to get a good stretch, you should feel a slight pull on the muscle, but not pain. And hold all stretches for about 15- 30 seconds. Some suggestions:3
- To stretch your hamstrings. Sit on the ground with legs straight in front of you. Gently lean forward from the hips until you feel the stretch in the back of your thighs.
- To stretch your hip flexors. Stand on one foot (hold on to a counter or chair if you need to for balance) and bring the other foot to the buttocks. Pull back gently, while keeping your knee pointed at the ground and your hip straight.
- To stretch your calves. Step forward with one leg. Shift your weight toward the front leg while keeping the back heel on the ground. If you press the hip of your back leg forward, this will also help stretch the hip flexors.
- To stretch the muscles in your chest. Standing in a corner, bring your hands up to shoulder height and place against the wall on either side. Keeping hands in position, lean body forward until you feel the stretch in the front of the chest. You can also do this in the doorway, turning away from the hand that’s on the wall.
I don’t know about you, but this post has made me want to go hit the gym. I’m thinking without my usual pre-workout stretch, I might just be able to bench press a bundle!
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?
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1. Gergley JC. Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(4):973-977. PMID: 22692125.
2. Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G. Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance: a meta-analytical review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013;23(2):131-148. PMID: 22316148.
3. Millar AL. Improving your flexibility and balance. American College of Sport Medicine Web site. http://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/articles/2012/02/02/improving-your-flexibility-and-balance. Updated February 2, 2012.