Updated: Feb 16, 2019
Growing up playing amateur soccer, it was common practice for me to arrive at training just in time or on game-day half-an-hour to an hour before kick-off. We would do our weekly warm-up routine followed by forming a circle and performing our stretches.
It is common practice for athletes, whether amateur or elite, to perform a warm-up and stretching routine prior to commencing physical activity. While it has been well-documented that warming up prior to physical activity has an important role in injury prevention and level of performance, it has been highly debated whether or not stretching is of the same importance, and if so, is there a ‘right’ way to do it?
There are different types of stretches to consider. Static stretches are when a muscle is held in a stretched position for a period of time before releasing the stretch. Dynamic stretches are essentially stretches that are performed with movement. It usually involves moving a joint continuously between both ends of its range of motion for a certain amount of time or repetitions.
Before exercise, especially in the early morning or after being idle for a period of time, different muscles in the body may start to feel tight and restricted. Stretching is an exercise that can be performed in order to increase flexibility in muscles and tendons and reduce this feeling of tightness in the body. In order for stretches to have a lasting effect, they should be performed regularly and also be accompanied with an active lifestyle.
When held for at least a minute, static stretching has been shown to temporarily improve flexibility in muscles and if performed regularly over time, can have long lasting effects. However, some research has shown that it can also have a detrimental effect on the power generated by the muscle for a short period of time after the stretch is performed. This suggests that a person who performs static stretches before physical activity may not be able to perform at their optimal capacity. Depending on the physical activity, this could even potentially lead to injury because a person may expect to perform an exercise at a certain intensity but their muscles may not have the required capacity to do so.
On the other hand, dynamic stretches have been shown to provide an adequate increase in flexibility without the loss in power of the muscle. This suggests that before commencing physical activity, dynamic stretching is the optimal choice in stretching method as it allows individuals to reduce their tightness in order to feel ready to perform their desired activity without the added risk of injury.
This, however, doesn’t discredit static stretches as being an extremely useful exercise. While performing static stretches pre-physical activity may not be as useful, it is a good exercise to perform post-physical activity. After physical activity, the body begins to cool down, muscles will begin to tighten up and this can be quite uncomfortable for a period of time, depending on the intensity of the exercise. Static stretching is a great exercise that can be performed post-physical activity to try and prevent the amount of muscle tightening post-exercise.
In summary, stretching is an essential exercise that should always be performed pre- and post- physical activity. Dynamic stretches should be performed before physical activity, but after a general warm-up while static stretches should be performed after physical activity as part of the cool down session.