Doing pre-workout stretches is pretty much viewed as the gold standard of warming up.
But do they actually prevent injury?
The answer is no.
In fact, research demonstrates that stretching before physical activity can make you even more susceptible to injury.
That’s what we are going to discuss in this article so if you are doing pre-workout stretches for your warm-up this article could cause a change of heart.
In my estimates, I’d say about 99% of athletes do some form of pre-workout stretching.
I’m talking every peewee sports team right up to the pros in every single sport on planet earth do some form of stretching before they practice and compete.
Which I’m certain you do a good amount both if you are reading this post.
The point is that we’ve all been told, from the time we were barely able to walk, that we should stretch before we do any type of physical activity because it will help keep us safe from injury.
I remember doing it before every sports competition I participated in from second grade through college.
I remember doing it before every gym class.
Static stretching and warming up were synonymous.
Static stretching is when you hold your muscle in a fixed position for an extended period of time.
A perfect example of this is the classic hamstring stretch where you bend over to touch your toes. Or you can even do it in a seated position.
The point is that in our society static stretching is viewed as an absolute necessity to warm-up.
So what do all of these pre-workout stretches actually achieve?
Well, according to the research out there – not much!
In fact, several studies actually point to the conclusion that doing pre-workout stretches will actually increase your chance of injury. This includes both before you do cardio, lift weights or participate in an athletic event.
Let’s take a look at some of the research.
One thing that is important to understand is that most injuries occur during the eccentric motion of the muscle.
The eccentric motion is simply the elongating phase of the contraction.
For example, if you do a bicep curl it would be the down movement. Same thing goes with bench press. If you do a sprint it is the forward movement of your leg (for the hamstring) before the explosive back kick contraction.
It is the eccentric motion where most injuries are caused.
In fact, some studies put that number at 90%.
And, of equal importance, is that the same research shows that the bulk of all injuries occur during a normal range of motion.
What does this mean?
It means that stretching likely does nothing to prevent these injuries since the primary purpose of stretching is to extend your muscle beyond the normal range of motion.
In fact, it can actually cause even more injury since you are straining the muscle beyond the natural range of motion.
Researchers examined a body of evidence on stretching and published their findings in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. These findings showed that stretching did not at all lower your risk of injury.
Additional research published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine basically found the same thing.
In today’s world, there is arguably no other group in which pre-workout stretches are used more than among runners.
And yet more research found that stretching did not reduce injuries among 1505 competitive runners. The likely reason is simple – running does not require an unnaturally large range of motion.
In fact, there is such a thing as being too flexible for not only runners but also other athletes as well. As Sage Rountree, author of “The Runner Guide To Yoga” points out:
We need only enough to move through a healthy range of motion—beyond that, we can strain muscles and tendons and even destabilize ligaments and compromise joint health.
The last thing that you want to do – especially if you are participating in sports that require explosive movements – is destabilize ligaments.
And there is also the endurance aspect of sports.
Running and other distance athletics require a large amount of endurance.
One study found that static stretching before an endurance event actually lowered the endurance of the athletes and caused their bodies to use energy less efficiently.
In other words, these athletes had to work harder to go at the same pace as those who did not stretch.
Another study found something similar among cyclists.
And then there is the whole power output aspect of both lifting weights and athletic events.
For example, research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science examined a total of 104 research papers and studies published from 1966 to 2010 on the effects of doing pre-workout stretches.
The examination found that static stretching had a negative impact on muscle strength and performance in a direct relationship to the time spent stretching.
That is to say – the longer you stretch the more power you lose.
They found that static stretching with the stretch held for 90 seconds:
- Reduced muscle strength by an average of 5.5%
- Decreases muscle power by an average of 2.2%
- And reduces explosive muscular power by as much as 3%
The study showed that even pre-workout stretches of less than 45 seconds had a negative impact on muscle performance.
These effects were noted for individuals regardless of age, gender or fitness level.
Combine this with the other body of evidence that shows that stretching also lowers endurance and makes you more susceptible to injury and it’s hard to image how doing it as a warm-up became so mainstream.
Looking back on my athletic career from the time I was very young all the way through my college football career there was not one event that we did not use static stretching.
That includes my 5-year college football career.
We were not the only team doing it either.
Like clockwork, before every single game, both teams would do no less than 15 minutes of static stretching.
Looking back I wonder if this was actually hurting the performance of the athletes on both sides?!
Much of athletics is all about leg power and endurance.
Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined the effect of pre-workout stretches of the lower body on one rep max squatting.
The study recruited 17 moderately trained men ages 18-24.
A decrease of over 8% in one rep max strength was observed followed with over a 22% decrease in lower body stability pointing the fact that the stretching also negatively impacted the stabilizing muscles and ligaments of the lower body.
I short, if I were to tell you that we were going to do 10 minutes of pre-workout stretching and the net result would be a decrease in your endurance, power and an increase in your risk of injury, I’m guessing you’d tell me to get lost!
Active Stretching: The Best Pre-workout Warm Up
In light of the fact that static stretching actually inhibits muscle performance and can make you more prone to injury, is there a better way to warm up.
The answer is yes.
Dynamic warm-ups (also called dynamic or active stretching) are the best way to get the blood flowing and loosen up your muscle before you do physical activity.
These include things like:
- Arm circles
- Leg swings
- Jumping jacks
- Bodyweight squats.
But, even more importantly, it includes doing one or two light warm-up sets on the exercise you are about to perform.
Take squatting, for example.
On squat days my typical warm up is to do 10 forward leg swings and 10 sideways leg swings with a full range of motion. I follow that up by doing two lightweight squat sets and I’m good to go.
A “warm-up” is simply meant to do exactly as the name implies – warm up your muscles by getting the blood flowing.
And there is actually research supporting the fact that active stretching it an effective way to help prevent injury.
A dynamic warm-up is superior to static stretching because it literally warms the muscle fibers and increases blood flow whereas static stretching actually puts extreme tension on the muscle before it is warm.
In fact, some studies have shown that static stretching decreases localized blood flow to the muscle along with oxygen.
The last thing you want to do is decrease oxygen to the muscle during a warm-up.
The reason is simple, oxygen starved muscles are fatigued muscles.
The way to think about this is just to imagine what would happen if you were doing sprints and were only able to take half the number of breaths?
You’d pass out!
What makes dynamic warm-ups superior is that they drive blood flow and oxygen to the muscles preparing them for activity.
Do Pre-workout Stretches Help Muscle Soreness And Recovery?
What you see some people doing is stretching their sore muscles.
Let’s say you have a tough leg day workout or you’ve just played an intense game of basketball and you’re sore. Actually, the soreness sets in about 24 to 48 hours later.
This is called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
In fact, it can actually indicate the opposite.
And when if comes to recovery from DOMS what I see some people do is trying to stretch the soreness away. Yet, once again, research has shown that this does not work.
Quoting from one body of research:
The evidence derived from mainly laboratory-based studies of stretching indicate that muscle stretching does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness in young healthy adults
Typically you would not try to extend those results to the entire population – but it’s fairly safe to say that stretching is not going to be a very effective way to reduce DOMS for anyone.
What happens is that some people with sore muscles will go and stretch and the soreness actually does improve while they are doing it – but all that really happens is that the muscles are being used and so they warm up and the soreness seems to dissipate.
The soreness inevitably returns shortly after the stretching.
Is Stretching Ever Beneficial?
So does this mean that stretching isn’t really good for anything?
In terms of doing pre-workout stretches in an attempt to reduce injury risk – stretching is not a good idea for the vast majority of people.
However, there are some sports that do require a much greater range of motion than others. In this event stretching might prove beneficial. Such sports include things like gymnastics, figure skating, and ballet.
In the event, you participate in any of these athletics that require an extreme range of motion than stretching might prove beneficial.
But, once again, you get the negative with it as well.
For example, extreme flexibility can often come with a price… as many gymnasts go through life with weakened and damaged ligaments, muscles and other issues associated with this extreme flexibility.
As far as other areas where stretching might be beneficial…
One thing to note, however, is that the mere act of physical activity, especially in the form of lifting weights, can achieve the same thing and much much more among the elderly as the biggest issue with elderly people is that they typically just don’t move around enough.
A common misconception is that doing pre-workout stretches reduces the risk of injury.
As we’ve discussed, research shows that this is simply not true. In fact, study after study shows that not only is pre-workout stretching a waste of time, for the most part, it also can make you more prone to injury.
A far better way to warm-up before exercise is by using dynamic warm-up activities – also known as active stretching.
This includes things like jumping jacks, leg swings, and arm circles.
Also, doing light sets of the weight lifting exercise you are about to perform is a far superior way to warm the muscle and prepare it for lifting.
Some people fear that they will lose flexibility if they do not stretch.
While this may be true, speaking from personal experience – the simple act of lifting weights and participating in athletes enhances flexibility without static stretching.
Not to mention that extreme flexibility can be accompanied by weakened and destabilized ligaments and other issues.