By Kristen Aline, B.S. Health and Sports Science, NSCA-CPT, CSCS
Functional Exercise Specialist
Integrative Health Coach
You have chronic back pain and you’re told to take up yoga. While in class, sometimes you feel relief, but overall the pain has not gotten better. In some ways, it’s become worse.
You injured your hip flexor in an adult softball league. You’ve been stretching it before every game, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
You’ve been taking intense yoga classes for years. You’ve become super flexible, but now in your 50s, you’ve developed chronic joint pain.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? You’re not alone. New research tells us that stretching may not be the answer to all of your problems. In fact, it may be the cause.
Let’s begin by defining the two forms of stretching typically implemented by fitness instructors, yoga teachers, trainers and coaches.
Static stretching: Static means stationary or fixed. Static stretching is holding a stretch with no movement (example: touching your toes and holding it).
Dynamic Stretching: Dynamic means continuous or productive activity. Dynamic stretching is actively and repeatedly moving a joint while increasing the range of motion over a set of 10 – 20 repetitions (example: Leg kicks). It could also mean performing a series of stretches successively.
Static stretching used to be the “go to” for everything; warm ups, injuries, chronic pain, stiff muscles and joints, cool downs and everything in between, but current research is showing that dynamic stretching is more productive in just about all of these areas.
As a warm up, dynamic stretching increases core muscle temperature and prepares you for exercise. Dynamic movement can also simulate the movements you’re about to perform by preparing your mind and your body in a specific way. Moving while stretching increases your power, range of motion, and flexibility. Conversely, static stretching does not prepare your body or your mind for exercises and studies show it may even inhibit performance. Static stretching can decrease muscle strength, power, and speed. This loss of power is due to the relaxation of the associated muscles and tendons which affects their ability to store energy.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effects of static versus dynamic stretching on explosive performances after 24 hours. The study concluded that static stretching can impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours while dynamic stretching has a positive effect on explosive performance.
Another study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that pre-exercise static stretching inhibits maximum muscular performance. The authors concluded that static stretching as a warm-up should generally be avoided.
Experts agree, avoid static stretching before exercise, but what about after exercise, in the morning, or before bed?
While some experts believe static stretching is not necessary at all, it can be a safe part of your overall wellness program if you follow the guidelines below.
1. Avoid Stretches That Compromise Your Body’s Natural Alignment.
a. Straight leg toe touches (both standing and seated): This stretch
puts significant pressure on the discs in your lower back and can lead to
spinal disc herniation. While standing, it also encourages hyperextension of your knee
and can lead to knee injury.
b. Tilting or rolling your head to the back: This stretch compresses your spine, nerves and arteries in your neck.
c. Hurdler stretch with one leg bent behind you: This stretch over-stretches the ligaments in your knee which can lead to ligament injuries and instability. It can also crush cartilage and throw your kneecap out of alignment.
d. Cobra pose or other stretches that hyperextend your spine: Hyperextending your spine can compress lumbar discs, impinge nerves and can even lead to disc herniation. Many people think of this stretch as a back stretch, but you’re really stretching your abdominals and only compressing the spine.
e. Extreme torso twisting: Your spine is not made to twist deeply. This
movement can upset disks, muscles and tendons in your back.
2. Avoid stretching Cold Muscles: Stretching cold muscles and joints can lead to muscle and connective tissue injuries. Increase your core temperature with dynamic movements before you begin, wear warm clothing and only stretch in an environment above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
3. Wait at Least One Hour After Awakening to Stretch: This is especially important as a protection against back injuries. When you’re lying horizontally for long periods of time water fills into the discs of your spine. This increased fluid causes the discs to expand making the spine more resistant to bending. The result in an increased risk of injury to spinal tissue.
4. Avoid Over Stretching: Over stretching is stretching too long, too often or taking a joint past its natural physiological range. When you stretch, you’re not only stretching your muscle, but also the fascia tissue within your muscle and the connective tissue that support your joint. With too much stretching or stretching beyond your natural range of motion, fascia, ligaments and tendons can lose their ability to recoil. This can result in decreases in strength and joint stability making your joints more prone to injury. Over-stretched joints also carry higher risk of arthritis due to wear and tear on cartilage. If you’ve already compromised your connective tissue with aggressive yoga classes or over-stretching you will probably never fully regain the support and strength of your connective tissue, but you can work to strengthen the muscles around the joint to regain some stability.
Note: If you don’t feel a stretch while keeping your body in it’s natural alignment it doesn’t mean you should push further. Unlike pushing yourself with your strength and conditioning program, flexibility beyond what’s natural will not make you a better athlete, improve your level of fitness, or prevent injuries. It could do just the opposite.
5. Never Bounce: Bouncing while stretching is called ballistic stretching and it should be avoided. It can stretch your muscles and connective tissue too far too fast causing injury. Over time it can also lead to small muscle tears which will actually decrease flexibility.
5. Never stretch an injured muscle or joint: When there is an injury, the fibers are already over-stretched and pulled away from each other. Stretching will only make things worse. Functional strength training along with sports massage are the best tools for overcoming injuries and improving strength and mobility.
Evidence suggests that dynamic movements are a beneficial way to warm-up your body before exercise and that static stretching should be avoided before performing tasks that require strength and power. Although static stretching can be safe when following the above guidelines, unless you’re a gymnast or a ballerina, it’s still not the best way to improve functional flexibility. The kind of flexibility you need to run, sprint, kick a ball, swing a bat or just go about your day is dynamic and requires contemporaneous strength and flexibility. The best way to achieve this is with functional strength training and dynamic movement.
See the below video for examples of dynamic movements that can be used as a warm-up for most sports and fitness routines.
Haddad, Monoem, Dridi, Amir, Chtara, Moktar, Chaouachi, Anis, Wong, Del P., Behm, David, Chamari, Karim (2014). Static Stretching Can Impair Explosive Performance for At Least 24 Hours. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Volume 28 – Issue 1 0 p 140-146.
McGill, Stuart (2007). Low Back Disorders 2nd Edition: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation.
Simic, Sarabon, Markovic (2013). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A met-analytical review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine Science Sports. 23(2) p 131-48.
Vorcick, Linda (updated 2014). Tendon vs. Ligament. U.S. National Library of Medicine.