Static Stretching – Does It Actually Harm Performance?

Is static stretching resigned to join the likes of fixed path resistance machines and wobble boards on the training scrapheap? Over the past months or so there’s been an array of articles deriding the use of static stretching, particularly prior to performance. Well, so far, I don’t think that stretching has been offered a suitable right of reply. Let’s see if we can readdress the balance somewhat.

Why The Hate?

The anti-stretching movement stems from a number of studies that have reported short term impairments in strength and power performance. There are too many for me to cite them all in this article, so I’ll direct you to a review articles conducted by Shrier (2004), Rubini et al. (2007) and McHugh and Cosgrave (2010) which all appear to confirm these conclusions. As a consequence of such research, both the European College of Sports Sciences (Magnusson & Renström, 2006) and the American College of Sports Medicine (2010) currently advise against the performance of static stretching prior to tasks requiring maximal performance.

So, Is It Not Justified?

The short answer… sort of. With so many methodological inconstancies between individual studies, it’s hard to compare protocols directly. Perhaps most importantly, the review conducted by Shrier (2004), upon which many recommendations have been made, did not take stretch duration into account. The subsequent works by Rubini (2007) and Young (2007) both propose that the duration, volume and intensity of stretch will play a key role in determining the overall response. Moreover, the way that static stretching has been implemented in the majority of studies is rarely conducive of a real-world warm-up. When static stretching is sandwiched between a generic and sport-specific warm-up it does not appear to be harmful to performance (Little & Williams, 2006; Taylor, Sheppard, Lee, & Plummer, 2009).

Let’s Bring Things Up-To-Date

Kay and Blazevich (2012) have recently conducted a meta-analysis examining the effect of static stretching on maximal performance. A meta-analysis is a type of study that analyses all the available research on a topic, groups certain aspects together and then performs complicated statistics to determine whether or not each aspect has an overall effect.

Stretch Duration

The authors calculated that stretches less than 30 seconds do not appear to impair performance, only 14% of findings demonstrating a reduction in performance. A pooled estimate (this attempts to determine the overall effect) of -1.1% ± 1.8% was calculated. I’d wager that few athletes would be in any danger of exceeding this duration prior to performance, 10-15 seconds is probably typical. The analysis also calculated no overall effect when stretch duration is increased to 30-45 seconds, 22% of findings showing decreases in performance and a pooled estimate calculated as -1.9% ± 3.4%. It is only stretches in excess of 60 seconds that appear to be harmful to performance.

Type Of Performance

Kay and Blazevich’s analysis supports the proposal of McHugh and Cosgrave (2010) that impairments in performance are most pronounced in activities requiring maximal force (i.e. strength) and less apparent in power activities. For example, stretching for 30-45 seconds had a pooled estimate of -0.6% ± 3.1% on speed/power performance and -4.2% ± 2.7% on strength performance. Similar comparisons were observed across other durations.

Why Are You Doing It?

The fact that static stretching does not appear to harm performance is not a rationale for its inclusion; exercises should be included on the basis of what they do, not what they don’t. For many, static stretching has become part of a pre-performance ritual, particularly in sport. If you think it works for you then I don’t see enough evidence to rock the boat and risk any associated psychological issues. Let us not forget the main point of static stretching though, the goal is to increase range of motion at a joint. This may indeed be warranted to prior to training or competition in order to facilitate proper technique; think about the hip flexors, plantar flexors, shoulder extensors and so on. In most instances we need some sort of mobility component in our warm-up and static stretching may well fit that bill for certain individuals.

Conclusion

Static stretching may harm maximal performances, however, such an effect is not definitive. Such impairments are more pronounced in strength performance than in speed or power performance. The negative effects of static stretching appear strongly related to stretch duration; decreases in performance seem confined to durations in excess of 60 seconds. Following static stretching with a sport-specific warm-up may further negate the risk of any performance detriment.

References

  • American College of Sports Medicine. (2010). ACSM’s Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (8th ed.). Philadelphia (PA): Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.
  • Kay, A. D., & Blazevich, A. J. (2012). Effect of Acute Static Stretch on Maximal Muscle Performance: A Systematic Review. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise, 44(1), 154-164.
  • Little, T., & Williams, A. G. (2006). Effects of differential stretching protocols during warm-ups on high-speed motor capacities in professional soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(1), 203-207.
  • Magnusson, P., & Renström, P. (2006). The European College of Sports Sciences Position statement: The role of stretching exercises in sports. European Journal of Sport Science, 6(2), 87-91.
  • McHugh, M. P., & Cosgrave, C. H. (2010). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandanavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(2), 169-181.
  • Rubini, E. C., Costa, A. L., & Gomes, P. S. (2007). The effects of stretching on strength performance. Sports Medicine, 37(3), 213-224.
  • Shrier, I. (2004). Does stretching improve performance? Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 14(5), 267-273.
  • Taylor, K., Sheppard, J. M., Lee, H., & Plummer, N. (2009). Negative effect of static stretching restored when combined with a sport specific warm-up component. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 12(6), 657-661.
  • Young, W. B. (2007). The use of static stretching in warm-up for training and competition. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2(2), 212-216.
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