For years we’ve told it’s important to warm up, stretch your muscles, get your heart rate going to prevent injury.
Some organisations have always warned against the need to static stretch before a workout, with the American College of Sports Medicine recommending a dynamic stretch, where you constantly work your muscles, repeating the motion, rather than holding a limb for a period of time. Save the static stretches for your post-workout cool down.
Now the June issue of the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, from the American College of Sports Medicine, decided to put stretching to the test with a team of athletes to see how dynamic stretching affected their performance.
The scientists recruited 20 young male athletes who play in team sports (such as football) and their performance required them to sprint and constantly change direction, which are activities thought to benefit from a dynamic stretch warmup.
The scientists went even further, making sure they hired athletes who routinely performed a dynamic stretch before their sport, all believing it would aid their performance.
Next, the athletes were made to warm up using different methods across four days. Each day they would start with fifteen minutes of high-intensity jogging, sprinting, zig zagging and other moves, followed by a different type of stretch pre-workout. Only the stretch element of the test would change each day.
One day the athletes would perform nine brief static stretches. Next day the same static stretches but held for longer. On the third day, the athletes turned to dynamic stretching, whilst on the fourth and final day, no stretches were performed at all.
After this warmup, the athletes performed a number of tests to measure flexibility, speed and agility.
The results were surprising to both the scientists and athletes. The performances did not change or improve on any of the test days, whatever stretch they performed. In essence, the stretching offered no performance enhancement over and above the 15 minutes high-intensity warmup, which is designed to get your heart up, muscles flexible and tuned for a workout.
“There was no difference in performance on each day” said Tony Blazevich, a professor with the Center for Exercise and Sports Science Research, who led the study. “But our subjects felt more prepared for the tasks when the stretching was included” implying that the stretching merely offered a psychological expectation that they resulted in a performance upgrade.
Does this new research mean you can stop stretching before you exercise? Our advice is to spend 10 minutes getting your heart rate up before you perform any exercise. This is important to loosen the muscles, get the blood flowing and making sure you’re prepared for working your muscles at the gym or any team sport.
It’s also worth adding that this research was performed with young male athletes. If you’re older, the benefit of stretching before exercise – particularly when lifting weights – is more valid and we’d always suggest a few minutes of dynamic stretching before you hit the gym.