Should Stretching Be a Part of Your Pre-Exercise Warm-Up?
Pre-exercise stretching may not be beneficial
People who stretch during the pre-exercise warm-up generally do so because they believe that this practice will reduce risk of injury and muscle soreness. Studies suggest that, for most sports, this may not be the case. When researchers have compared groups of people who stretch or don't stretch before activity, they have found little difference between the groups in rates of injury, types of injury or muscle soreness.
Because stretching during the warm-up has been recommended by physical educators and coaches for such a long time, it is surprising that researchers do not find a strong, clear benefit. While not all of the studies agree, they do indicate that we need more information on the physiology and biomechanics of stretching and flexibility. At this point, it appears that our intuition regarding the potential benefits of pre-exercise stretching do not have enough science to back them up. In fact, while pre-exercise stretching may be beneficial for some sports and activities, it may be a waste of time for others -- time that could be better spent in a more thorough warm-up.
Pre-exercise stretching may cause injury
While most studies find neither benefit nor harm from pre-exercise stretching, the research is not unanimous. A few reports suggest slightly less injury in stretching groups, but others suggest more injury in those who stretch before exercise.
Studies have shown that stretching can increase muscle soreness and cause muscle damage. While such damage may be part of a process that promotes greater flexibility in the long run, just as muscle damage from strength training promotes stronger muscles over time, inducing such damage at the beginning of a workout does not make sense. In addition, improper stretching positions may cause harm to joints by placing too much pressure on sensitive joint structures, or by over-stretching ligaments.
Another concern is that prolonged passive stretching appears to decrease a muscle's maximal force production. This can result in a decrease in strength for up to one hour after the stretch. This may affect athletes who participate in sports that require maximal muscle force production for performance, such as powerlifting, basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, and many track and field events. Many runners and other endurance athletes have stopped stretching before exercise for this reason, as well.
Given these concerns, it appears that stretching during the warm-up period may be a bad idea for some activities, especially those requiring strength and power. And it may be unnecessary in sports that do not require much flexibility.
Many people should still stretch during warm-up
If your sport or activity requires a great deal of flexibility, as with gymnastics, dance, yoga and some martial arts, you may still need to incorporate quite a bit of stretching into your warm-up to prepare for the upcoming activity.
Stretching is alsopart of most physical therapy injury rehabilitation programs. If your therapist has advised special pre-exercise stretches, continue to follow these recommendations. And if stretching during the warm-up has kept you injury-free, remember that the research is not conclusive at this point. You may wish to continue stretching.
Regular stretching for lifelong health and fitness
If you decide you don't need to stretch during your warm-up, you will still need to find another time to stretch, such as after exercise, or during a separate session. Flexibility, like all fitness measures, is governed by the "use it or lose it" rule. Although stretching before exercise does not appear to have many short-term benefits, a lifetime of regular stretching can increase flexibility and slow the loss of flexibility that occurs with age. Improvements in flexibility may also prevent back or other orthopedic problems, and improve quality of life for older adults. FM
Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D., is professor of exercise and sport studies at Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
©Copyright 2006. Fitness Management
Article by Barbara A. Brehm, Ed.D.