One of the most contentious issues in stretching is whether to stretch before exercise or not. With strong evidence both for and against both options, it’s easy to understand people’s confusion.
The answer to the question of injury causation like many things is context specific and is dependent on a number of factors:
- What’s the training objective?
- What type of stretching is being performed?
- How long is the stretch being held for?
- What level of tension is present in the muscle during the stretch?
- How far ahead of demanding exercise is the stretch being performed?
- Is the tissue being stretched tight for a reason?
Each of the above questions needs to be answered before determining whether a particular stretch would be detrimental to performance.
What’s the training objective?
If the training objective is biased towards mobility or flexibility then stretching before the workout would be beneficial.
What type of stretching is being performed?
Static stretching is more likely to lead to injury if done incorrectly, whereas there is little chance of dynamic (not ballistic) stretches doing the same.
How long is the stretch being held for?
Holding stretches for up to 30 seconds has been shown to have no detrimental effect on performance. Holding stretches for longer than this begins to reduce the contractile properties of the muscle.
What level of tension is present in the muscle during the stretch?
The greater the level of tension during a stretch, the greater the risk of injury if exercising immediately afterwards.
How far ahead of demanding exercise is the stretch being performed?
Stretches performed at the start of a warm up alongside myofascial release and activation drills are significantly less likely to contribute to injury than stretches immediately preceding high intensity activity.
Is the tissue being stretched tight for a reason?
Sometimes a muscle is tight to protect the body from instability or a lack of control. In these instances, stretching prior to exercise could be counterproductive.
So with the above in mind, here’s the best practice list for stretching.
- Stretch right at the start of the warm up
- Use dynamic stretches over static stretches
- Choose stretches relevant to the workout
- Hold any static stretches for a maximum of 30 seconds unless there’s a valid reason for taking longer
- Don’t take a stretch to full end range (normally indicated by a slight tremor in the muscle)
- Consider that tight muscles may be tight for a reason and evaluate performance in response to stretch