Health and fitness is an area where there are very few eternal truths. Scientific surveys come and go, fads are born daily and new diets are all the rage one minute and forgotten the next. Everyone has their own ideas and ways of exercising and things change so fast that it's a full time job keeping up. But there has always been one sacred cow, a wisdom never questioned - that it's essential to stretch and warm up before undertaking any vigorous exercise. But it seems that now, certain people are questioning whether we're even doing this right.
It was always the first thing you were told at school when starting a gym class, touch your toes, have a stretch and hold it to warm up those muscles. When we watched the sports on the TV, be it athletics or soccer, we could see our heros bending and stretching as they waited to compete, or touching their toes on the touchlines. It warms your muscles, gets you limber and loosens you up so you avoid injury. Well needless to say, this wisdom of the ages is now being challenged.
Traditional static stretching
Some researchers claim that their studies show that static stretching, (done to stretch the muscles while the body is at rest and generally held for some 30 seconds or longer), can work against sportsmen and women hoping to compete at their best. A study by scientists at the University of Zagreb re-analysed data from a Scandinavian test in which volunteers stretched before jumping, sprinting, lifting and doing other sports. Out of the volunteers who did static stretching, nearly all found that their strength was reduced in stretched muscles by almost 5.5%, (other studies say up to 9%), with a further reduction seen when stretches were held for over 90 seconds. It seems that stretched muscles are not as strong. And it is not just strength that is affected. Their figures showed that the muscles' ability to produce force when contracted fell by a further 2-3% after static stretching.
Other studies seem to back this up. Research published in The Journal of Health and Conditioning Research recently claimed that weightlifters risked feeling dizzy and weak if they static stretched prior to lifting. Two groups of young male volunteers performed squats with weights and those who hadn't stretched could lift 8.3% more weight than those who had. What's more, they didn't report any dizziness.
If you are competing at a high level then these small percentages could make a huge difference. Think of Olympic runners trying to be first out of the blocks or tennis players hitting serve in a Wimbledon final; sometimes extra explosive strength and power really matters.
Scientists believe this power loss happens because stretching does what our old gym teachers told us it did - it loosens us up. Our muscles and tendons act a little like an elastic band. When loosened through stretching, they lose some of their ability to store energy and unleash it.
Of course, not all sports call for such explosive power and athletes may have to rely on endurance. In this case it is better to stretch in a way that gets the muscles you will be needing in your exercise session moving. This can be done with movements like arm circles, leg kicks etc., and is called dynamic stretching.
How is dynamic stretching different?
Dynamic stretching helps to work into your muscles. Most professional sportsmen try to do dynamic stretches that echo movements in the sport they are about to do. Types of dynamic stretching include arm swings, side stretches and leg swings. Dynamic stretches are definitely more sports-specific. Because they are done gradually and without any jerking, you can work your way up into your full range of motion, rather than trying to hold a stretch for some 15 seconds or more. By doing this you can use up some of the potential energy stored in the muscle.
Which is best?
There is really not enough evidence yet to say that one type of stretching is better than the other and both seem a good way to avoid injuring yourself. In general, dynamic stretches are probably better when you are preparing for exercise, especially if you are in a competition or attempting a sporting challenge and you want that extra burst of explosive energy. When you are winding down after exercises, static stretches seem to have the edge: they help you to cool down and lessen those post-exercise aches and pains.
One thing to avoid
There is one definite consensus when it comes to stretching and that is to avoid ballistic stretching, which means doing a quick double bounce at the end of a stretch when at your full range of motion. Unless you really know what you are doing, you can tear your muscles and cause all manner of strains and pulls.
Sick of a static lifestyle and want to get warmed up and ready to go? Get in touch and we can find what exercise is best for you. We promise you it will be dynamic!