Plenty of topics in the training world inspire strong opposing views. One of them is pre-training and pre-performance static stretching. Some say athletes should avoid it and never stretch, while others say it's fine and any diminished performance effects are transitory. Like many other hot topics, the truth tends to fall somewhere in the middle.
A 2014 study showed that short-duration (10-20 seconds) static stretching actually helped to improve speed and agility performance. This study flies in the face of previous literature, which showed that due to a number of physiological factors, pre-training and pre-performance stretching reduces power, speed and strength.
But the previous literature contains a couple of important nuggets that are important to acknowledge.
First, the reduced effects of static stretching tend to be erased by subsequent dynamic movements. Stretching followed by any sort of dynamic movement negates reductions in performance.
Second, the longer the stretch duration (longer than 45 seconds), the greater the reduction in performance. It seems that keeping the stretch short and sweet is the preferred method before training.
Third, individual differences need to be taken into account. The studies tend to show data of group averages, but it's important to look at individual differences within a group dataset. Many times, while the group average may show a reduction in performance, some individuals improve performance—demonstrating that there are individual responses to static stretching. It may hurt some and actually benefit others. In our in-house research at my facility, we've shown the same thing—in some cases, a few athletes improved while the group average decreased performance after stretching.
Given this, it is important for coaches to test their athletes to see how individuals respond differently to various warm-up and stretching protocols. An athlete who has greater joint restrictions, stiffness or positional problems may benefit from a specific stretching protocol to reduce muscle tone and improved range of motion (ROM).
For example, a classic tip for dramatically improving vertical jump is to stretch the hip flexors to allow for greater hip extension power and ROM. If applied correctly, this concept could carry over to performance in sprinting, agility and lifting.
Here are two examples of static stretching variations with which we've had success in helping athletes improve performance and mechanics of various movements.
Avloniti, A., Chatzinikolaou, A., Fatouros, I. G., Avloniti, C., Protopapa, M., Draganidis, D., & Kambas, A. (2014). "The Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Speed and Agility Performance Depend on Stretch Duration and Conditioning Level." Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association.
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