Do you think you should be stretching more? Should you do it before or after a workout? Should you do dynamic or static stretching? And does it prevent injuries? We will dive into these questions and give you more clarity on if and when you should stretch.
Does it Prevent Injuries?
It is a pretty common belief that stretching is important for preventing injuries. This is not necessarily true. Research supports the fact that stretching can increase flexibility, but it does not support the claim that stretching prevents injuries. In some cases it may even cause injuries.
If we take a muscle that is tight and stretch it, then we will gain more motion. However, doing this before a run, heavy lift, or sporting event could lead to injury because there was no established control of this new motion that was just gained.
This is not to be confused with a proper warm up with mobility work done before a workout or sporting event. We, and most research in this topic, are mainly looking at static stretching for long hold times. But we do consider this on a case by case basis.
It is likely that a runner does not need to stretch their hamstrings before a run (more on this down below), at least not more than some dynamic stretching. The hamstring will be used actively when running, cycling through relaxation and contraction. Now take someone who is about to front squat. They could have limited flexibility in their lats that prevents them from getting their elbows up. It is highly unlikely that a static stretch to the lats would leave them at risk of injury because it is not a main driver in this exercise.
More important considerations for preventing the risk of injuries are the size of your workload and performing exercises with proper form. Stretching does not necessarily influence either of these factors, unless limited mobility is preventing you from getting into proper form.
There are multiple things to consider when deciding whether you need to stretch or not. So, read on and decide for yourself.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
Static stretching is holding a muscle at end range for a prolonged period of time, usually around 1-2 minutes. Dynamic stretching is essentially when we move in and out of a light stretch in a slow and controlled manner.
We prefer to use more dynamic stretching techniques for most sports. It still helps reduce tension in muscles and gain some flexibility from our normal resting state, but it is not as aggressive.
Key things to focus on for a warm up are to improve blood flow and prepare the muscle for activity. This is better accomplished with the repeated contractions from the muscles in dynamic stretching.
Before or After Workout?
In terms of before or after a workout our basic recommendation is:
We established that dynamic stretching is better to include in a warm up. For static stretching we actually recommend doing stretching a different time of day not revolving around a workout or sporting event.
The argument many have for post workout stretching is to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), but the research does not support this claim either.
Again in some specific cases static stretching can be used prior to exercise, but most of the time we advise against it.
Differences in Sport
A gymnast is going to need more flexibility or mobility than a runner. A powerlifter will have different flexibility needs than a gymnast and a runner. This is why general recommendations are not always the best.
Let's focus on the hamstrings since that is a muscle that is commonly victimized as tight and requiring static stretching. A gymnast needs to have extreme flexibility that exceeds that of the average person. But they still require good control at that end range, so it is important to follow up stretching with end range strengthening (this is what defines mobility).
A runner needs much less flexibility. They still want to be within the normal range, but having some tightness in the muscles is actually beneficial. The muscles use elastic energy to produce force, so having some tightness helps with that. Being overly flexible will not allow the runner to use that elastic recoil from the tension in muscles.
This carries over even more for a powerlifter or weightlifter that needs a lot of tension in the hamstrings to perform the deadlift. They still need to have a relatively normal range of motion, but overstretching can significantly affect the ability to generate tension through the posterior chain.
In general static stretching is not going to prevent injuries or improve your performance. Although a proper warm up is still important and should focus primarily on dynamic stretching or other mobility work.
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