A stretch is a stretch, right? How you stretch and when is important for injury prevention and performance – but which type of stretching is better is a subject of contention.
You’re about to head off on a run or start a lower body strength session, but before you begin, you want to have a stretch. Perhaps you lean forward and grab your ankle to give your quads a stretch, or do a few walkouts into the world’s greatest stretch to warm-up your hamstrings, hip flexors, core and upper body. Both are great stretches to help you limber up ahead of a sweaty workout but one is clearly going to get you warmer, quicker.
Stretches fall into two camps: static and dynamic. Static stretches are the ones you do while standing, sitting or lying in the same spot while dynamic stretches involve movement. Hinging to touch your toes and hanging there for 10 seconds is a static hamstring stretch; hinging to touch your right foot, coming up and stretching to your left foot and repeating for 10 reps is a dynamic one. But what’s the difference in terms of injury-proofing our bodies?
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“Static stretches certainly aren’t as effective and if the joints that you will be using in your main workout aren’t fully mobilised then yes, they can pose an injury risk,” explains PT Hannah Lewin, a view confirmed by a study published in the British Medical Journal, which found that while dynamic warm-ups can make us stronger, static stretching has no effect on power outcomes in a subsequent workout at all.
Warm-ups are designed to get our muscles lubricated and ready to work, via controlled exercises. Cool-downs tend to be more static (ie in the same spot), allowing us to hold certain poses for a few seconds so that we can slow down the heart and lengthen worked muscles. While these static stretches can feel really good after a workout, some claim that trying to warm-up with them can actually come with a higher injury risk. That’s because static stretching puts muscles under tension; that tension constricts the capillaries of the muscles, which then decreases blood flow. Lower blood flow to the muscles makes them less alert for performing – exactly the opposite of what you want before you get working.
Studies have shown that trying to warm up with static stretching can decrease your performance ability and reduce muscles’ power potential. A 2013 analysis published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine And Science In Sports looked at over 100 studies on pre-exercise static stretching and concluded that “(static stretching) before exercise has significant and practically relevant negative acute effects on maximal muscle strength and explosive muscular performance.”
The study went on to say that the longer you hold stretches at the start of a workout, the bigger the negative impact on subsequent performances. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, can improve your performance and keep you injury free. By moving through certain stretches (like a bodyweight tempo squat, walking lunges, walkouts), you’re moving joints through a larger range of motion than you would in a static hold, increasing blood flow to that area to wake up muscles, tendons and ligaments. That means they’ll be better able to produce and absorb force during exercise.
“The point of dynamic warm-ups is to focus on mobility and joint stabilisation while static stretches are used at the end of a workout to increase flexibility,” Lewin explains. She goes onto say: “We don’t use static stretches at the start of a session because dynamic warm-ups improve range of motion and increase body temperature, which you just can’t do with static stretching.”
While static stretches at the very beginning might be best avoided, that doesn’t mean that they should be left to the very end of a session either. “Static stretching has been commonplace in sport for ages but in recent years, it’s received a lot of criticism for apparently reducing your dynamism and even possibly damaging connective tissues,” says Ben Gotting from The Foundry. “Our view on this is that it’s total bollocks.”
“Take a look at some of the most dynamic and flexible people you can think of: ballet dancers, martial artists and gymnasts. All of these athletes have and will continue to perform long-duration static stretches to improve flexibility. Are they any less dynamic?” Think about your regular yin class even; you stay in positions for up to five minutes at a time in order to increase your range of motion but they’re far from dynamic.
At The Foundry, static stretches are used during rest periods after muscles have already been mobilised and lubricated. “This doesn’t mean that we exclusively use static stretching, far from it, but it is a worthwhile tool in any strength coach’s arsenal,” Ben confirms before going onto say that as always, the best option is whatever works best for you and that there’s no hard and fast rule that can apply to everyone. “That’s why there is huge value in instructing a coach that understands you through thorough assessment and will listen to your previous experiences with exercise rather than just giving you a cookie-cutter programme.”
How to warm up and cool down effectively
Hannah says that dynamic warm-ups are “massively more effective than static stretching pre-workout” because they focus on full-body movements. “We like to get multiple muscle groups working at the same time,” she explains, saying that it’s really important to tailor your warm-up to your main exercise. If you plan to do a load of deadlifts, for example, you want to use your dynamic warm-up to mobilise the muscles you’d use for that.
As well as prepping for the work ahead, PT Tashi Skervin-Clarke recommends prioritising exercises that target your tight areas so that you’ve got more range during your main workout. If you’re sitting down all day, that’s probably going to be your hip flexors and if you’re a runner, probably hamstrings and glutes too.
“A typical warm-up for me would include bodyweight squats and lunges. I also love to do walkouts into the world’s greatest stretch,” she says, before adding that she tends to add in some high knees and strides before a run. As a cool-down, she recommends we keep it as “relaxing as possible” – ie no over-stretching. If you’re coming back from a run, drop into a five-minute slow jog to flush out your legs and gradually drop your heart rate. If you’re worried about getting cold, jump into the shower and once you’re changed, spend 10 minutes foam rolling and static stretching on your mat before cracking on with your day.
Try adding a lateral bear crawl into your warm-up routine to test your balance and get every muscle in the body working.
Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts, led by our very own trainers.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.