Stretching has been around for thousands of years, with many touted health benefits. Stretching has become extremely commonplace in various settings in the past few decades. Stretching muscles is now standard practice before (and sometimes after) games, practices, workouts, rehab sessions, and even as an individual activity. Its many claims are: increased flexibility, reduced likelihood of injury, reduced stress and anxiety, warms up muscles, reduced likelihood of arthritis and other forms of degeneration, and many more.
Despite its standard practice and popularity, there’s so much debate and confusion about stretching. Type in “stretching” in your search bar, and you’ll get about five articles harking its benefits and five saying it’s overrated and you shouldn’t do them at all. As with everything in the fitness industry, the real answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Hopefully, this article can help clear the air and give you some direction on how to stretch to improve health and performance properly.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
There are two significant types of stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching is the classic stretching we are all most familiar with. Bend over and touch your toes, sit on the ground and spread your legs as far as possible, pull your arm across your chest, and child’s pose are all common examples of static stretches. These stretches are commonly held from roughly ten seconds to a couple of minutes.
Dynamic stretches are movements that probably don’t feel like stretches. These stretches are not held but rather a quick-expression and rebound of range of motion. Common examples are a full range of motion squats, lunges, arm circles, twists, throws, and even jumps.
An easy way to tell the difference is that static stretches are held in place, and dynamic ones involve movement. They can both be performed in a variety of directions and positions.
So, is one better than the other? Again, it depends on the situation and goal. However, dynamic stretching is superior when warm-ups and when preparing to perform.
Benefits of Dynamic Stretching
Both dynamic and static stretching have some things in common. They both temporarily increase the range of motion and warm the muscles and joints getting stretched. That’s where the parallels mainly stop. Where dynamic stretches shine is in performance increases. Dynamic stretches are proven to increase: power, strength, speed, and proprioception (coordination). Part of the reason is that dynamic stretching closely mimics sport-specific motions and resistances. It also elicits what is called the stretch-shortening cycle. This refers to the stretch and quick reflexive rebound motion muscles go through. Imagine pulling a rubber band and letting it go. That’s the stretch-shortening cycle, which is what dynamic stretching is.
Static stretching doesn’t have many benefits, and it can have some adverse effects. When held long enough and with enough intensity, Static stretching can reduce power, speed, strength, proprioception, and thus, performance. Using the rubber band analogy again, if you hold a rubber band stretched for a long time, it will lose its tension. Eventually, the rubber band becomes lengthened, making it weaker and slower. You don’t want to be weak and slow. However, it should be noted that this is primarily a temporary effect. It doesn’t mean static stretching will permanently make you slower and dynamic stretching will permanently make you faster. The research is inconclusive, but the effect lasts anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. You will be back to normal the next day.
Static stretching Isn’t the Devil, However.
This doesn’t mean static stretching should be avoided at all costs. It has its place. It is beneficial for restoring range of motion after an injury or surgery. It can also increase flexibility in sports that require great ranges of motion. However, given their temporary effect, they probably shouldn’t be used prior to a competition, practice, or workout. Static stretching should primarily be used in rehabilitation settings and post-workout. Light static stretching can also help speed up recovery, but dynamic stretching is probably a better way to go for that.
How to Stretch Before a Game
So what’s a good strategy to stretch and warm-up before a competition? Of course, what sport you are playing should ultimately dictate this. In general, though, lunges, RDLs, kicks, jumps, throwing (when relevant to sport), and sprints are some great general all-purpose dynamic stretches that enhance all athletes’ performance. The key is to not overexert yourself with these movements. Remember, this is just a primer for competition. Generally, 5-8 movements with 5-10 reps on each movement is an excellent place to start. Take some mental notes on how it makes you feel and perform, and make adjustments next time if necessary. Most important, listen to your body to find the proper warm-up.