For years, many athletes have lived by the mantra of not stretching during warm-ups, but is this still the right way to go?
Do you stretch as part of your warm-up? For years, athletes have been advised not to but the research which led to that approach is becoming dated. Has anything changed?
The argument goes that held, passive stretches in particular – but even dynamic and ballistic ones – can impair subsequent athletic performance. It’s argued that an overly stretched muscle loses its resilience and tensile properties – basically, it has less “ping”.
This slows down powerful muscular actions, such as those required for sprinting, throwing and jumping.
A good place to start is with research reviews. In 2018, sports scientists writing in Sports Medicine reviewed “current literature” relating to the “Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance”.
The researchers wanted to specifically look at dynamic stretching – where limbs are moved reasonably quickly through a range of movement (ROM). Think gentle leg swings and arm circles.
The sports scientists noted: “If the goal of a warm-up is to increase joint ROM and to enhance muscle force and/or power, dynamic stretching seems to be a suitable alternative to static stretching.”
They say “suitable alternative” as they did note how held, static stretches can impair performance.
The sports scientists then considered ballistic stretching and indicated this could be more detrimental than controlled dynamic stretching. Ballistic stretching is a much more dynamic way of mobilising muscles, where movements are much faster and sharper. Think of in-place leg cycling drills, walking leg swings and even an A-skip sprint drill.
Perhaps the researchers were referring to a heightened potential for injury. Certainly, if an athlete is neither ready for nor familiar with ballistic stretches there could be cause for concern.
However, most warm-up protocols should follow a RAMP protocol. RAMP stands for:
Raise body temperature
Activate (mind and muscles)
Mobilise (move quicker specifically)
Potentiate (fire up mind and body to 100 per cent readiness for athletic action) ω
This is a step-by-step way to raise mind and body for athletic performance. Dynamic stretches would lie within the Activate stage, while ballistic ones sit within Potentiate.
As I’ve written about previously in these pages, potentiation refers to the turning on of the systems the body needs to, for example, move at maximum velocity or apply maximum force at take-off. Certain ways of performing an exercise or movement can achieve this goal.
If the RAMP protocol is followed, then the athlete will be ready to progressively move more and more dynamically – and this includes the performance of ballistic stretches. That would then appear to negate the problems the researchers alluded to.
Returning to the research and the stretch types, the team admitted in its conclusions that: “Inconsistent descriptions of stretch procedures in research has not helped with clarification.”
Hopefully by the end of this article you will see more clearly.
Effects on the stretch-shortening cycle
What about the effects on the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) of stretching?
This eccentric (lengthening) to concentric (contraction) quick-fire reaction is crucial for virtually all athletic disciplines and, of course, plyometrics.
Researchers, again in Sports Medicine, considered the SSC and its relationship to stretching.
In all this team looked at 43 studies. They discovered that around half showed a negative effect on SSC performance, while the others showed no negative effect.
They did add further support for dynamic stretching by stating that “dynamic stretching showed no negative effects and improved performance in half the trials”.
They further added: “Acute dynamic stretching may also be effective in inducing smaller gains in ROM prior to performance without negatively effecting performance.”
So, these stretches could eke out a few more degrees of movement, which could be valuable to the sprinter who may slightly increase stride length and have more pliable hamstring muscles which will be less likely to be strained.
Let’s now address static stretching, as it is included in this research and is usually the type of stretch which garners the most criticism when done prior to athletic performance. It’s these kinds of stretches which most of us will shy away from.
The same sports science team as just quoted indicated that the effects of static stretching on the SSC may, in fact, be quite small.
Again, the researchers pointed to the conflicting methodologies of existing research literature into the effects of static stretching on dynamic sports performance as a caveat.
Are we getting closer to any answers?
I did discover some research which looked specifically at sprinters. It’s always a good idea to find research with a very specific relevant population.
The research in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research involved collegiate sprinters.
This team started by noting the negative effects of static stretching on sprint performance. Static stretches require the athlete to hold a limb/joint/joints in a stretched position for 10 to over 60 seconds. The argument against is that this results in a decrease in the muscle’s dynamic elasticity.
Now, I find this piece of research a little convoluted. This is because the sprinters performed static stretches after a dynamic warm-up which included sprint drills! This would obviously appear to be something of a retrograde step, though it could be argued that this really highlighted the potential effects of static stretches.
The team then analysed speed segments over 100m sprints.
There were two control groups. Group one performed a dynamic warm-up followed by static stretching, while Group two performed a dynamic warm-up but did not follow it up with static stretching.
What happened? “Results revealed a significant slowing in performance with static stretching in the second 20m (20m-40m) of the sprint trials,” says the research.
What about the remaining 60m of the 100m?
Well, no negative effects of the static stretching were discovered. However, the loss of speed in that 20m-40m segment meant the static stretching sprinters’ overall time remained slower as they could not make up the time lost.
What’s the verdict?
It’s not 100 per cent clear, is it? It seems that there is research which indicates static and more dynamic stretches can impair performance, while others advocate for dynamic/ballistic stretches and even static stretches.
We coaches need to use research and, more importantly, what we see in training as a guide to how we coach and therefore what we implement for our athletes.
I believe that some gentle held static stretches may be useful at the start of the warm-up, as long as they are not held too long (10-15 seconds).
This is especially of value to the working/student athletes who may have spent time driving or travelling to their training session and may have sat at work or college for most of the day as well. Doing this may just ease the athlete’s body into receptiveness for the quicker action to follow. The RAMP protocol should also be followed.
There is research which indicates that it’s beyond 45 seconds where the more negative effects of static stretching kick-in. However, personally I would not recommend going anywhere near that length.
Dynamic stretches should then be the order of the day before progressing to sprint/jump/throw drills which by their very nature are ballistic and potentiating. That makes them, to my mind – preparatory and not detrimental to performance.
» This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of AW magazine. Subscribe to AW magazine here