By: Dr. Jordan Mackner, DC
Ok, so I’m sure you’ve heard it all before; stretching before any kind of physical activity will help boost your performance and help prevent injuries. Or, maybe you’ve never stretched a single muscle fiber in your body before your round of golf and you feel great, but your buddy who stretches before every round doesn't feel so great. So, what’s going on here? Those who stretch regularly might say it improves performance, prevents injuries, and feels good. The people who don't stretch usually admit they should stretch, but they just don't have the time to work it into their routine. There are also people out there who say stretching isn't beneficial. Somebody has to be wrong, but who is it? Well, I’m glad you asked because there is a bunch of research on this topic, and it’s time to put these arguments to rest!
Stretching Immediately Before Activity
Always stretch before a workout, right? Well, not so fast. Let’s take a look at what the research tells us (I have cited the articles below for the naysayers to reference). I’m about to blow a lot of minds right now, but stay with me on this one. If you stretch right before physical activity, you become slower, your muscles become weaker, and you decrease your muscle's endurance (1,2,3). Are you doing anything explosive in your workout today? Do not stretch before, as you will decrease power, decrease jump height, decrease jump force, and decrease jump velocity (3). "What did he just say?" is probably what you're asking yourself right now. Well, let’s talk about what is going on here. The goal of stretching is to lengthen a muscle. This happens in two ways: 1.) relaxing the muscle and 2.) causing small amounts of damage to the muscle. As a result, the muscle becomes weaker, which is why the muscle underperforms on all the prior measurements tested in the study. Now, don’t throw away all of your foam rollers, therabands, and stability balls just yet, let’s put a different spin on the story.
Benefits of Regular Stretching
What happens if we stretch every day and not just before physical activity? Well, this one’s for you stretch-a-holics. Regular stretching (characterized as stretching a muscle for 30-60 seconds every day for a minimum of 3-4 weeks) shows some great benefits. People that regularly stretch show improved flexibility and an increase in their range of motion. Also, regular stretching has been known to increase muscle force, contraction speed, jump height, and muscle endurance in some studies (2,4). In summary, regular stretching basically produces the exact OPPOSITE effect of stretching immediately before an activity. How do we explain this? Well, the benefits from a regular stretching protocol are most likely due to stretching-induced muscle growth. You heard that right -- stretching can actually help your muscles get bigger, faster, and stronger. If you have been paying attention, you now realize why your friend who stretches immediately before every round seems to see no benefit with his aches and pains, and your other buddy walks right from the parking lot to the first tee with no trouble at all.
I hope you feel far more educated on the topic of stretching. My advice? Work a regular stretching routine into your daily activities. Do stretch before physical activity, but make sure it is at least an hour in advance so you don’t have the negative effects we talked about on your performance that day. If you prefer, you can work your stretching routine immediately after your round or activity that day. You will still see the same long-term benefits.
1. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2005; 23(5): 449-454.
2. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 2004; 14(5) 267-273.
3. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005; 19(2): 338-343.
4. Journal of American College of Sports Medicine, 2007; 39(10): 1825-1831.