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Should I Stretch? Should I Strengthen?

Strength Training: More Valuable than Stretching? What do I do? In this article, we break down common myths we hear inside the gym and help you decide what path is right for you!

Myth #1: You should stretch as part of your warm up.

Static stretching has been utilized in warmups for both general fitness and high level athletics for decades. As a health and fitness community, we are starting to develop a better idea of when to stretch and when to not stretch. Warm ups are a crucial part of one’s workout routine and as a healthcare professional, I want you to be at your best before going into a challenging workout. Current research suggests that static stretching may do more harm than good prior to a workout that requires strength and/or power production (aka most workouts). Unfortunately, it is still utilized in many exercise programs as an adequate warm up.

“The best way to prepare for any intense activity is just to start easy and steadily dial-up the intensity” (Ingraham 2020). Warmups should also elevate core body temperature. Static stretching falls short in both of these arenas, as it does not mimic the workout and typically does not increase body temperature all that much.

Dynamic stretching, as opposed to static, should be utilized in warmups as “it increases the suppleness of and blood flow to the muscles, raises body temperature, and enhances free, coordinated movement (Matthews et. al 2020). Movements like squats, lunges, skips, inchworms, or anything that elevates heart rate and targets the muscle groups of the upcoming workout are sufficient for a dynamic warm up. For more on dynamic warmups check out this post.

Myth #2: Stretching improves sports performance.

Actually quite the opposite. Studies have shown decreased sports performance following static stretching, specifically in regards to power, strength, and speed. We’ve already linked one study that suggests that static stretching decreases sports performance… but here are a couple more just to make sure that horse is really dead.

A study of 17 male subjects had one group complete 10 minutes of quadriceps stretching prior to measuring squat jump height and found that the “acute bout of static stretching significantly reduced power and force development during SJ” (La Torre et. al 2010). This points to the notion that sports performance is significantly lower in the stretched condition.

Another study displayed similar results. Twelve male team-sport athletes were given sprint repeats with a four minute recovery between each sprint. The group that participated in static stretching during the four minute recovery period displayed significantly lower sprint times than the group that did no stretching (Beckett et. al 2009).

The reduction in power, strength, and speed following static stretching could be due to a paralleled reduction in the contractile nature of muscles, but the exact mechanism is unclear.

Myth #3: Muscles Often Need To Be Lengthened (aka Muscle is too short)

Stretching has shown benefits in improving range of motion (ROM). However, this benefit was typically not due to changes in the muscle. Rather, the changes were due to a neurological adaptation in the form of improved stretch tolerance. Stretch tolerance can be described as “the maximum tolerable joint movement” (Blazevich et. al 2014). In simpler terms, stretch tolerance describes our brain’s willingness to move through a range of motion, not the physical muscle’s willingness.

While most research points to this sensory theory, or stretching as a tool that enhances the muscle’s tolerance to the tension of stretch, there has been some positive research supporting the mechanical theory, in which the muscular structure itself actually becomes more receptive to stretches. However, the study that supported the mechanical theory studied participants for eight weeks that held stretches for 7.5 minutes (Freitas et. al 2015).

Seven and a half minutes is just enough time to get in a few sets of deadlifts or squats at a moderate intensity! Both of which are a lot more fun than holding a static stretch for 7.5 minutes.

The alternative to stretching?

STRENGTH TRAIN! It is much easier to alter the mechanical structure of a muscle through resistance training as opposed to holding stretches for extended periods of time. While strength training still requires consistent time and effort, the reward to work ratio is far greater for resistance training than it is for stretching. Plus, the effects of resistance training have been researched extensively and its effectiveness proven, whereas stretching has lackluster results at best.

Muscle breakdown is required for hypertrophy, or muscle growth, and only resistance training is capable of doing this. In addition to proper loading during strength training, working through end ranges of motion should also be emphasized. Dr. Jarod Hall builds on this concept by discussing how an RDL is not only a passive gain in ROM, but also an “active eccentrically controlled gain in ROM that stimulates restructuring of the sarcomeres of the hamstring to have a greater ability to tolerate load into that strengthening position.”

Essentially, Dr. Hall is highlighting that an RDL is a 2-for-1 movement in terms of its benefits. The two benefits would be that an RDL:

  1. Gives the passive stretching sensation through the hamstrings, similar to touching your toes.

  2. The RDL simultaneously STRENGTHENS those muscles. This also allows for mechanical adaptations of the muscle through the movement of moderate to heavy weights through extended ranges of motion.

So what is stretching good for?

If stretching feels good, do it! There may be a slight increase in joint range of motion following stretching but the same effect could likely be achieved through simple movement because of increased blood flow to the area. “Most stiffness is a sensation, a symptom, a kind of mild pain with movement rather than an actual limitation of movement” (Ingraham 2020). Highlighted by Ingraham is the notion that many times, tightness of a muscle is just weakness in a muscle.

Whether due to the placebo effect or an actual neurological adaptation, if stretching makes you feel as if you can move better, or relieves soreness, than by all means, do it! Stretching and myofascial release can still have their place in warmups, cooldowns, and as a recovery modality. It also may be beneficial to utilize stretching and foam rolling as a mental cooldown after a tough strength training session.

Take home points:

  • Static stretching is most likely not beneficial when used as a warm up protocol, but dynamic stretching is

  • Static stretching, as a warmup or utilized between sets, may actually have detrimental effects on strength, power, and speed

  • Few studies have shown static stretching, without extensive durations and intensities, to alter the muscle itself; most studies that have found the positive effect of stretching to be due to neurological adaptations or the placebo effect

  • Strength training is more advantageous for muscle adaptations than stretching

  • Self-efficacy (a person’s belief in their ability to execute a task) plays a large role in any aspect of fitness performance and stretching can still play a role if the athlete believes it to be beneficial to them in some way. This benefit could be in the form of ROM increase, soreness decrease, improved performance, or injury prevention

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