A proper warm-up is crucial to improving performance and decreasing the risk for injury. Just as a strength and conditioning program should be functional—mimic movements of sports—so should a warm-up.
Let’s begin by defining the two forms of stretching typically implemented by coaches and exercise specialists prior to exercise or competition.
Static stretching: Static means stationary or fixed. Static stretching is holding a stretch with no movement. (Example: touching your toes and holding it)
Dynamic Stretching: Dynamic means continuous or productive activity. Dynamic stretching is actively and repeatedly moving a joint while increasing the range of motion over a set of 10 – 20 repetitions. (Example: Leg Kicks)
Coaches and fitness professionals used to advocate static stretching to improve performance and prevent injuries before an athletic event or a workout, however current research shows that dynamic stretching is more productive.
Dynamic stretching requires continuous movement which increases core muscle temperature and prepares the mind for competition. Dynamic movements can also simulate the movements of your sport thereby preparing your mind and your body in a sport-specific way. Moving while stretching increases your power, range of motion, and flexibility.
Conversely, static stretching does not prepare your body or your mind for competition and studies show it may even inhibit performance. Static stretching can decrease muscle strength, power, and speed. This loss of power is due to the relaxation of the associated muscles and tendons which affects their ability to store energy.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of static versus dynamic stretching on explosive performances after 24 hours. The study concluded that static stretching can impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours while dynamic stretching has a positive effect on explosive performance.
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that pre-exercise static stretching inhibits maximum muscular performance. The authors concluded that static stretching as a warm-up should generally be avoided.
Experts agree, avoid static stretching before exercise, but what about after exercise, in the morning, or before bed?
While some believe static stretching is not necessary at all, it can be a safe part of an overall wellness program if certain guidelines are followed.
Avoid Stretches That Compromise the Body’s Natural Alignment
Straight Leg Toe Touches (both standing and seated)
Keeping the legs straight while bending over and touching the toes puts significant pressure on the discs in the lower back and can lead to spinal disc herniation. While standing, this stretch also encourages hyperextension of the knee which can lead to knee injury.
Tilting or Rolling the Head to the Back
Tilting or rolling the head to the back compresses the atlas and axis—tiny vertebrae located at the top of the spine—as well as nerves and arteries in your neck.
Hurdler Stretch With One Leg Bent Behind
Bending the non-stretched leg behind the body over-stretches the ligaments in your knee which can lead to ligament injuries and instability. It can also crush cartilage and throw your kneecap out of alignment.
Cobra Pose or Other Stretches that Hyperextend the Spine
Hyperextending the spine can compress lumbar discs, impinge nerves, and can even lead to disc herniation. Many people think of the Cobra Pose as a back stretch, however it’s really stretching your abdominals and only compressing the spine.
Extreme Torso Twisting
The spine is not made to twist deeply. This
movement can upset disks, muscles, and tendons in the back.
Avoid stretching Cold Muscles
Stretching cold muscles and joints can lead to muscle and connective tissue injuries. Increase your core temperature with dynamic movements before you begin, wear warm clothing, and stretch in an environment above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wait at Least One Hour After Awakening to Stretch
This is especially important as a protection against back injuries. When you’re lying horizontally
for long periods of time water fills into the discs of your spine. This increased fluid causes the discs to expand making the spine more resistant to bending. The result in an increased risk of injury to spinal tissue.
Avoid Over Stretching
Over stretching is stretching too long, too often or taking a joint past its natural physiological range. When you stretch, you’re not only stretching your muscle, but also the fascia tissue within your muscle and the connective tissue that support your joint. With too much stretching or stretching beyond your natural range of motion, fascia, ligaments and tendons can lose their ability to recoil. This can result in decreases in strength and joint stability making your joints more prone to injury. Over-stretched joints also carry higher risk of arthritis due to wear and tear on cartilage. If you’ve already compromised your connective tissue with aggressive yoga classes or over-stretching you will probably never fully regain the support and strength of your connective tissue, but you can work to strengthen the muscles around the joint to regain some stability.
Note: If you don’t feel a stretch while keeping your body in it’s natural alignment it doesn’t mean you should push further. Unlike pushing yourself with your strength and conditioning program, flexibility beyond what’s natural will not make you a better athlete, improve your level of fitness, or prevent injuries. It could do just the opposite.
Bouncing while stretching is called ballistic stretching and it should be avoided. It can stretch your muscles and connective tissue too far too fast causing injury. Over time it can also lead to small muscle tears which will actually decrease flexibility.
Never Stretch an Injured Muscle or Joint
When there is an injury, the fibers are already over-stretched and pulled away from each other. Stretching will only make things worse. Functional strength training along with sports massage are the best tools for overcoming injuries and improving strength and mobility.
Evidence suggests that dynamic movements are a beneficial way to warm-up your body before exercise and that static stretching should be avoided before performing tasks that require strength and power. Although static stretching can be safe when following the above guidelines, unless you’re a gymnast or a ballerina, it’s still not the best way to improve functional flexibility for sports. The kind of flexibility you need to sprint, kick a ball, or swing a bat is dynamic and requires contemporaneous strength and flexibility. The best way to achieve this is with functional strength training and dynamic movement.