Does Stretching Improve Performance?
I’m still overseas in the U.K.1
I’ve got some of my own content lined up for later this week, but today TG.com regular, Travis Hansen, was kind enough to pinch write for me today.
It’s on static stretching and whether or not there’s any efficacy towards it helping to improve athletic performance.
Does Stretching Improve Performance?
Does the science on traditional stretching actually benefit measures of athlete performance? I’m not sure that the notion has ever been questioned and we have all, including myself, just accepted the fact that by stretching our muscles we were actually taking positive steps towards running faster, jumping higher, and becoming an overall better athlete.
Before we dive into a lot of the research lets first look at some theories for and against stretching. We will start with the pros of stretching.
Pros of Stretching
First, it’s a common belief that stretching can effectively alter the tissue length resulting in more potential energy to be stored and an effective reset to the muscle allowing it to stay healthy and perform better. The effects of stretching on injury prevention is another article topic in itself, so we will just focus on the benefits of performance for now.
Unfortunately, it’s by no means fair to sit here and say that stretching will help you perform better although it sounds great on paper.
However, stretching does affect the viscous properties of muscle fibers and creates less resistance temporarily allowing for more potential ROM; although it doesn’t seem to be a permanent adaptation. Stretching can also improve fascicle length which may have implications on muscle recruitment rates, so there is another plus for stretching.
Moving on, stretching also deals with the aftermath of training.
Stretching has been shown to improve Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation.
This is the rest and digest part of our nervous system that you probably already know about and stretching can impact this branch of the nervous system, hasten recovery, and increase the potential to train harder in subsequent sessions if the stretching is timed right.
Lastly, stretching can make sure that there are no limitations in movement.
There is a bevy of research showing that its biggest influence is through creating more range of motion and degrees of movement freedom.
There are several scenarios you could think of which would require more ROM as an athlete (i.e. deep squat prior to vertical jump takeoff, loading phase of throwing or swinging, etc.) and you wouldn’t want a limitation in flexibility to prevent any success in your skill execution.
But what if stretching doesn’t really work as well as we thought and had hoped for…………?
Maybe Stretching Isn’t the Magic Pill (Important, but Not a Panacea)
1. Angle of Peak Torque
I read about this theory awhile back when Chris Beardsley brought the idea to light in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
Basically, there are specific angles and ranges of motions where we will be most successful with different styles of training.
For example, with low velocity movements like bench press, squatting, and deadlifting the larger the range of motion and joint angle…the greater amount of force can be generated.
Conversely, with high velocity movements the ranges of motion and angles need to be much smaller in order to be successful.
All else being equal, stretching isn’t really going to offer a whole lot if you’re an athlete who relies upon high velocity performance on a regular basis.
Another thing to consider is that if you analyze the nature of most power and speed based activities, often times, athletes and clients already possess the capacity to load sufficiently and unload and propel their bodies in the intended direction.
So why then would they need to stretch more if muscles are naturally elastic and they’re already capable of the desired response?
Kelly Baggett referred to this idea of movement specificity as limits of flexibility.
Most movement in sport doesn’t even come close to what a person is already capable (stretching wise) and the tasks don’t require a tremendous amount of stretching in order to perform well.
Lastly, is the old Length-Tension Relationship.
A muscle has a sweet spot in terms of optimal contraction that we should all aim for.
If there is too little or too much stretch then there will be resultant decreases in force production and performance.
Stretching then becomes questionable with this in mind since it aims to drive more motion into the tissue and surrounding joints which could cause our efforts to dissipate when the time comes.
Note From TG: I wanted to take a quick time-out to expound a bit on this topic. Please don’t take this post as an all-out attack on static stretching. My thoughts (and I think Travis’s are as well) mirror that of Mike Boyle, where, years ago there was a study that showed stretching before a vertical jump affected performance.
The knee-jerk reaction by the fitness industry was to avoid stretching with a ten-foot pole. However, if I recall, the study had it’s participants do a metric shit-ton of stretching (like 10-15 minutes worth, give or take? maybe more?), which of course isn’t ideal for performance. There’s a stark different between that and having an athlete engage in a few quick stretches.
Basically, it’s likely best not to take a yoga class right before a timed 60. Outside of that, a smidge of static stretching prior to competition isn’t going to alter the space-time continuum.
Okay, I’ll shut-up now.
This All Sounds Nice on Paper But What Does the Research Actually Say Stretching Does for Performance?
“To determine whether SS produced similar performance changes in different performance activities, the findings of the studies were separated into power–speed- or strength-based tasks. Fifty-two studies reported 82 power–speed-based measures (i.e., jumping, sprint running, throwing), with 56 nonsignificant changes, 21 significant reductions, and 5 significant improvements; collectively, there was a small 1.3% reduction in performance. Seventy-six studies reported 188 strength-based measures (i.e., 1-RM, MVC), with 79 nonsignificant changes, 108 significant reductions, and only 1 significant improvement. There was a moderate reduction in performance (–4.8%), which indicates a more substantial effect of SS on strength based activities. The stretch durations imposed between activity types were considerably longer for strength-based activities (5.1 ± 4.6 min) than for power–speed-based activities (1.5 ± 1.6 min), which may explain the greater mean performance reductions after SS.” (1)
And here is some more…
“Twenty-six studies incorporating 38 power–speed-based measures used <60 s of SS, with 29 nonsignificant changes, 4 significant reductions, and 5 significant improvements in performance; collectively, there was a trivial change in performance (–0.15%) (Supplementary Table S41). It is interesting to note that although most of the findings were not statistically significant after short-duration stretching, a greater number of significant improvements than reductions were found in jumping (Murphy et al. 2010b), sprint running (Little and Williams 2006), and cycling (O’Connor et al. 2006) performances. Thus, there is no clear effect of short-duration SS on power–speed-based activities, although changes may be observed on a study-by-study (and hence, subject-by-subject) basis. Nonetheless, when 28 power–speed-based studies (44 measures) using ≥60 s of stretching were examined, 27 nonsignificant changes and 17 significant reductions were found, with no study reporting a significant performance improvement. Compared with shorter-duration stretching, the mean reductions were marginally greater (–2.6%) (Supplementary Table S41).” (1)
Zero Non-Sense Stretching
If you’d like to hear a little more on what Travis has to say on the topic check out his resource Zero Nonsense Stretching HERE. (<– affiliate free link).