Stretching before exercise: do we really have to do it?

By Michael Anderson HCPC, MCSP, MSc, Senior Physiotherapist

As a musculoskeletal physiotherapist and a previous personal trainer, I have given out specific muscular stretches or stretching routines to hundreds of people for various reasons, including as part of a warm up prior to performing exercise such as running. Some would have taken on board my advice on what stretches would benefit them but I reckon some would have thought "I haven't got time to do that".

So, is stretching really that important and why do a variety of health, fitness and well-being professionals as well as fitness blogs and magazines advocate stretches and encourage us to perform them?

A brief history

When we hear the word "stretching", most of us will think back to our childhood physical education lessons and being asked to move into a position and either hold that position or bounce our body weight in and out of said position. For years, people thought that any stretch was a good stretch as it had the ability to make them feel more comfortable, however, recently health professionals and researchers have begun to debate the effects of stretching both in and out of the sporting environment and the type of stretching that is of most benefit.

Static Stretching

A stretch whereby a specific position is held with the muscle on tension to a point of a 'stretching' sensation and repeated.

Static stretches have been regarded as an effective method of increasing flexibility, reducing muscular stiffness and, the range of movement of our joints. Since the early 1980's, static stretching has been widely promoted prior to undertaking physical activity as a method to prevent injury and improve physical performance. However, research is not in complete agreement that the effects of performing stretches is entirely positive with some authors saying that static stretching prior to exercise can increase the risk of injury.
Dynamic Stretching

A stretch whereby a limb moves through its full range of motion to the end ranges and repeating several times.

Dynamic stretching began to gain popularity approximately 10-15 years ago amongst athletes, coaches, personal trainers and health professionals. Dynamic stretching should not be confused with Ballistic stretches (like those bouncing toe touches we all had to do in PE at school). Dynamic stretches are described as controlled, smooth and, deliberate whereas ballistic stretches are uncontrolled, erratic and, jerky. Dynamic stretching has been shown to have positive effects on joint range of movement, muscular performance and, body awareness.

What type of stretch is better?

Static and dynamic stretching have been seen to be equally effective in increasing the range of movement in joints. Regarding performance, static stretching provides differing results with some studies indicating that reduced muscle strength can occur following a static stretch. Dynamic stretching on the other hand is not associated with strength or performance deficits, with some studies providing evidence to suggest that power, jumping and, running performance can improve.

With respect to the effect of stretching before exercise on injury prevention, a limited number of studies with varying quality have shown mixed results. Performing static stretching prior to exercise does not appear to be able to stop you getting injured (e.g. muscular strains) and, can reduce the natural 'leg stiffness' that is often required for exercise efficiency. Alternatively, performing dynamic stretching by specifically engaging the muscles required to perform exercise will improve efficiency and can reduce the possibility of  injuries related to muscles and tendons.

So do I have to stretch before I exercise?

Both static and dynamic stretching are effective methods of increasing flexibility and muscle extensibility and it has been suggested that dynamic stretching following a short bout of cardio vascular exercise (such as marching, jogging or, skipping) has more benefits compared to a series of static stretching. However, individualised stretching programmes are recommended due to individual responses to stretches and the different requirements for different types of exercise.

Although stretching after exercise was not the main focus of this article, the general feeling is that performing a set of stretches after you’ve exercised can help reset the body to a ‘natural’ position and posture and help reduce the post-exercise stiffness and soreness.

Page last reviewed on 07/06/2016