Should you stretch before doing resistance training? Chances are you don’t begin a weight training session by grabbing a pair of heavy weights and doing a set. Lifting heavy when your muscles are cold increases the risk of injury. Some people spend time stretching before a workout – but HOW should you stretch? It matters. Certain types of stretching can actually reduce the amount of weight you’re able to lift and reduce your power output if you’re doing a plyometric workout. Here’s why.
Why You Shouldn’t Do Static Stretches before a Workout
At one time, experts believed static stretching before a workout reduced the risk of injury but recent research doesn’t support this idea. When the Centers for Disease Control did a meta-analysis of 350 studies looking at static stretching and the risk of injury, they found no evidence that it prevents injury. Static stretching also reduces the amount of power and force your muscles are able to generate. When you statically stretch a muscle and hold it for thirty seconds or more, sensory receptors located where the tendon and muscle meet are activated. These receptors are called Golgi tendon organs and their main function is to monitor the amount of tension in a muscle.
There are two ways to generate enough tension to activate Golgi tendon organs: shorten the muscle too much by lifting a weight that’s too heavy or passively stretch it by holding a static stretch. When Golgi tendon organs sense too much tension from over-shortening or over-stretching, they send information through the spinal cord to the brain and the brain sends a message back to relax the muscle. This is called autogenic inhibition and it protects muscles from tearing. That’s a good thing!
The problem with activating Golgi tendon organs during static stretching is it reduces the amount of force your muscles can generate afterward, sometimes up to an hour afterward, although research is conflicting on this. Some research shows the reduction in force is shorter in duration, as little as 15 minutes. This means you may not be able to lift as much. Interestingly, one study showed that static stretches held for less than 60 seconds doesn’t have a negative effect on power and force production. Other research shows that holding a static stretch for as short a time as 20 seconds can activate the Golgi tendon response and decrease muscle force production.
Does That Mean Static Stretch is Useless?
Even static stretching has its advantages. It helps to increase flexibility. That’s important if you have tight muscles. The best time to do static stretching is AFTER a workout to help release muscle tension. If you MUST static stretch before a workout, hold each stretch for no longer than 20 seconds.
A better option is to do dynamic stretching instead. These are fluid movements that cause muscles to stretch but doesn’t hold them in a stretched position. These might consist of arm swings, hip circles, leg swings, air squats, and dynamic lunges. Dynamic stretching increases your core body temperature and sends blood and oxygen pulsing towards your muscles before a workout begins. This increased blood flow increases flexibility and range of motion to prepare you for lifting or any other athletic endeavor. It also “wakes up” your nervous system so it can better communicate with your muscles.
Can dynamic stretching before a resistance workout improve your performance? A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that dynamic stretching enhances muscle strength and power. Unlike static stretching that reduces it. So dynamic stretching is the best way to warm up before a resistance training session and before other workouts as well.
Tips for Doing a Dynamic Warm-up
Some people warm up by jogging in place for a few minutes but it’s best to work as many muscle groups as possible. For example, add arm swings and hip circles to warm up your upper body and core. By ensuring all your muscles are as warm and flexible as possible, you’ll reduce your risk for injury. A study carried out on young soccer players showed that a dynamic warm-up reduced the risk of injury. Don’t skimp on the warm-up even if you’re short on time.
Save Static Stretching for After Your Workout
Static stretching after a workout increases range of motion and it’s a good stress reliever too. Spend a few minutes after cooling down stretching the muscles you just worked and hold the stretch for around 30 seconds. There’s really no evidence that this will reduce muscle soreness but it does help with muscle tightness and flexibility. In fact, a Cochrane Database Reviews showed that static stretching before or after a workout was ineffective for reducing after-workout soreness or DOMS.
Avoid doing ballistic stretches. This can cause the muscle to contract and tighten and lead to injury. Static stretching still has its place after a workout but dynamic stretching and an active warm-up to get the blood flowing is the best preparation for a workout.
Don’t forget to stretch before a workout – but make sure it’s dynamic stretching.
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Jan;44(1):154-64.
ACE Fitness. “Debunking Fitness Myths: Stretching”
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jul 6;(7): CD004577.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3):677-683.
Idea Fitness. “Dynamic Warm-Ups Reduce Sports Injuries?
Sports Medicine 34.7(2004): 443-449.
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