Myth busting: Static stretching before a workout

Written by Elly McGuinness

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Have you noticed how great your body can feel after you’ve released excessive amounts of tension that have built up in your muscles? Whether it’s before, after, or in-between workouts, sometimes your muscles will simply feel like they need a good stretch.

Workouts aside, it’s likely you’ve also noticed this feeling when you’ve been in a fixed position for too long. Our bodies really do love, and crave movement – they were designed to do it! Long periods of time spent driving, working at a desk, or simply the transition from lying in bed all night to getting up and into your day are all situations when you may feel like you needed a good stretch.

Going beyond basic stretching for muscle release

Stretching is one way to help loosen up your joints and muscles. There are many different forms of stretching, including static, dynamic, and partner-assisted stretching. Modalities such as yoga and Pilates include different forms of stretching as an integral part of their practice. Many group and 1:1 fitness training sessions also include elements of stretching.

As well as stretching, there is a plethora of additional techniques that can be effective for relieving muscle tension. Examples of alternative manual techniques to stretching include massage, trigger point therapy (e.g. foam rollers and trigger point balls), and voodoo flossing.

All of these techniques can have their place in a fitness plan and program. A well-designed program from a qualified trainer can help ensure you’ve got just the right mix of training and recovery modalities for you.

What is static stretching?

Traditionally, the most commonly adopted approach to stretching muscles has been static stretching. This is where you simply hold a stretch at a level of tension where you can feel the muscle being stretched, without feeling pain.

When the goal is to re-lengthen the muscle, static stretches are often held for around 10-15 seconds. If the goal is to improve flexibility, they are often held for around 30-60 seconds.

You may have done static stretching in any number of workout situations. These include:

  • At the beginning of a workout (perhaps after a general warm up)
  • During a workout (maybe in between sets in your resistance training workout)
  • After your workout to relax and re-lengthen
  • In between workouts as part of a recovery plan

The effectiveness of static stretching is hotly debated in the health and fitness industry. Like the majority of physical modalities, it can offer many benefits when it’s done effectively, with the needs of the individual in mind.

When you decide to do your static stretching will, in part, determine its effectiveness.  So should it be performed before your workout? It might feel like static stretching before your workout helps your muscles to feel good. You may have even followed the advice of an instructor to perform static stretches at the beginning of your workout.

However, static stretching before your workout is not necessarily going to offer you many benefits. In fact, it could even be detrimental to your workout performance. Let’s take a look at the reasons why.

The problems with static stretching before a workout

To help ensure safety while performing static stretches, the muscles should first be warmed up. This is the first reason that it’s not usually a great idea to begin your workout with static stretches. Muscles that are warm are easier to stretch, and less likely to get injured.

You might think, therefore, that it’s a good idea to do your general warm up (e.g. a gentle jog, brisk walk, or another form of cardio warm up), followed by your static stretches. However, as a simple principle, this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. Why would you stop moving your body after you have managed to get it warm? In essence, this is what you would be doing if you are stopping to perform static stretches. Doing so could cause your body to cool down again, so you’re not really as ready to tackle your workout as safely and effectively as possible.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that static stretching at the beginning of your workout (especially resistance based ones) could also hurt your performance during the workout.

Research on static stretching before workouts

Research studies have shown that static stretching before workouts can negatively affect the force production of the muscles. This means that your ability to run faster, jump higher, and lift heavier could be adversely affected during your workout.

Summaries of a few research findings:

Several further studies support these findings. If you want to optimize the performance of your muscles during your workouts, leave the static stretches until the end of your workout, or for specific stretch-focused sessions.


A better approach to pre-workout stretches

Pre-workout stretches can still have their place in your workout program. Instead of doing static stretches, consider including an appropriate dynamic stretch routine.

Dynamic stretches are “moving” stretches that can help safely and effectively prepare your neuro-muscular system (brain-body connection) for the workout ahead. They are usually done after a general warm up that raises the heart rate, and before the main body of the workout.

Dynamic stretch exercises should mimic the movements that you’ll be doing during your workout. They are typically done without any external load. Although they should be specific to your workout, examples could include arm swings and circles, leg swings, hip circles, torso twists, bodyweight squats, unloaded lunges in different directions, and more.

If you’re unsure how to approach static stretching, or other forms of stretching in your workouts, get in touch with our expert trainers for further advice.

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