Does static stretching prior to exercise decrease the risk of injury?
Static stretching is seen as an important part of a warm up before exercise. However, is this best way to prepare your muscles for a workout, and does it decrease your chance of injury? The majority of research in the area tells us that there is little evidence to support this claim, and there is insignificant evidence to say that static stretching prevents the risk of overall injuries. Static stretching can even significantly decrease performance in sports where a large amount of force needs to be produced e.g. sprinting. However, there is some evidence suggesting that static stretching may reduce the risk of sustaining musculotendinous injuries by increasing the range of motion at the joint and therefore putting less tension on the muscle tendon (Young, 2007). A more relaxed muscle may be beneficial to sports where the emphasis is on eccentric muscle contractions, while stiffer muscle may be better suited to sports where forceful concentric and isometric contractions are needed.
What are the disadvantages of performing static stretches as part of a warm up?
Research tells us that performing static stretching prior to exercise has a negative effect on muscular strength and power particularly in sports like sprinting where you require a more stiff muscle tendon unit (MTU). When the muscle is lengthened following static stretching, it is less able to store energy during the eccentric phase of a muscle contraction due to decreasing neural activation. This means there is less force transfer from the muscle to the tendon resulting in decreased force production.
So what are the positives to static stretching?
Small et al (2008) assessed the effectiveness of static stretching as part of a warm up. They noted that static stretching may play a role in preventing musculotendinous and ligament strain injuries. This may be due because static stretching improves the flexibility of ligaments, musculotendinous units, and connective tissue by promoting muscle relaxation and improving the range of motion (ROM) at the joint.
So what should I do for a warm up?
A traditional warm up can be outlined in three key stages; general warm up, active stretches, and specific warm up. Start by performing a general warm up such as 300-500m on the rower. This will begin to elevate the heart rate and increase blood circulation to muscles. The next stage is to perform active stretches comprising of dynamic movements through a full range of motion. A good way to start is by performing exercises to match the primal patterns of movement (squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull, overhead press, and twist). The final stage is called the specific warm up. During this phase you should perform movements with greater intensity/load or speed/power. The purpose of this is to get your nervous system to fire appropriately for the upcoming work sets. Your warm up should be designed so that you perform dynamic movements similar to what you will be doing in your training, while slowly increasing in intensity.
In conclusion, the best way to avoid risk of injury is to firstly have a good balance between mobility and flexibility to ensure the structural integrity of your joints and muscles. Follow the link below to our blog post The Importance of Mobility. Static stretches have the most benefit immediately after exercise to restore muscle length and also on your rest days to aid with recovery. Secondly, the warm up should effectively utilise the three stages stated above doing a combination of active stretches and dynamic movements.