By Dr. Mercola
Do you dutifully bend and touch your toes for 60 seconds before you start a workout? For many, stretching and exercise go together like peanut butter and jelly – after all, we’ve been told for decades that stretching is key for warming up your muscles and helping to prevent injuries.
It turns out, though, like so many other unchallenged “truths,” that stretching is not always all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, new research suggests that certain types of stretching before you exercise may actually be counterproductive.
Reasons to Give Up Your Pre-Workout Static Stretch
According to a recent study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,1 engaging in passive static stretching prior to lifting weights could make you feel weaker and less stable during your workout.
The researchers concluded that such stretching should be avoided prior to strength training, noting that the passive stretches may have impaired strength because of joint instability.
A second study, a meta-analysis of over 100 studies, likewise revealed that pre-exercise static stretching generally hurts rather than helps your athletic performance. Researchers noted:2
“ … the usage of SS [static stretching] as the sole activity during warm-up routine should generally be avoided.”
Static stretching, they revealed:
- Reduces muscle strength by nearly 5.5% (and more when a stretch is held for 90 seconds or more)
- Cuts muscle power by 2%
- Reduces explosive muscular performance by nearly 3%
American College of Sports Medicine Now Advises Against Static Stretching
Static stretching is when you hold your muscle in a fixed position for a prolonged period, such as 60 seconds or more. This technique has been regarded as the gold standard for decades, but now research shows that it actually decreases the blood flow within your tissue creating localized ischemia (a restriction in blood supply) and lactic acid buildup. This can potentially cause irritation or injury of local muscular, tendinous, lymphatic, and neural tissues.
In short, static stretching may damage your muscles and tendons, which may be why studies show it worsens muscle performance, particularly when the stretch is held for 60 seconds or more.3
The evidence is so clear that the American College of Sports Medicine now advises against this form of stretching prior to your workouts. But this isn’t to say that all forms of stretching should be avoided.
Dynamic ‘Active’ Stretching Improves Performance
While static stretching is now going by the wayside, dynamic stretching, an active type of stretching such as walking lunges, squats or arm circles, is coming in to take its place. Dynamic stretching has been shown to positively influence power, speed, agility, endurance, flexibility, and strength performance when used as a warm-up.4
My favorite type of dynamic stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching or AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to help repair itself and prepare for daily activity.
AIS is a protocol of specialized repetitive stretches, performed in a specific order targeting myofascial (muscle and connective tissue) injury and restriction. AIS allows for the elongation of muscle and fascial tissue without eliciting your body's protective mechanisms that would inhibit safe, effective stretching and overall flexibility.
I now do a daily stretching routine that stretches my neck, shoulders, legs and toes for about 45 minutes every day. I typically multitask and do the upper body stretches while I am listening to video or audio programs on the Web. I do the neck stretches while I am working on my computer, and the leg and toe stretches while I am in bed -- so it's very possible to work this routine into even the busiest schedules.
What Exactly is Active Isolated Stretching?
Active isolated stretching can be used for warming up for exercise, training and most importantly to rehab from your injuries. This is key, as nearly everyone I know gets injured while exercising at some point or another. After injury or even after prolonged periods of inactivity your muscles and joints lose flexibility, range of motion (ROM), strength and general stamina.
I had a serious hamstring tear when I first started doing Peak Fitness exercises; I was sprinting outside and injured my left hamstring. More precisely it was the adductor magnus right where it inserted on the sit bone or the ischial tuberosity. I played around with it for a few years but after consistent AIS stretching I have finally been able to resolve it.
Tips for Performing Active Isolated Stretching
The process begins with the identification of the specific muscles and tissues to be stretched. Sometimes this is obvious but typically it requires the assistance of a trained therapist to help identify which muscles and exercises are to be used in your treatment program. Next, you use very gentle pressure and hold each stretch for only two seconds. You have to be careful not to use too much pressure so as not to engage the Golgi tendon and myotatic stretch, which act as safety mechanisms that if engaged will prevent the stretch from working. The keys to using AIS effectively include:
- Move the joint as far as you can in the direction of the stretch. This is the active part of the exercise, which activates the antagonistic muscles that inhibit the stretch. Many fail to do this and only passively stretch the muscle -- and that simply will not work. It is the most common mistake people make when doing AIS.
- Stretch the muscle gradually with a gentle stretch of less than one pound of pressure toward the end point of ROM, and then hold it for two seconds.
- Do not push through the stretch; instead do multiple stretches and with each stretch you get more ROM.
- Usually you do sets of 10 reps.
- To actually engage the stretch you can use a therapist or you can do regular home stretching exercises.
It is important to always return the area being stretched to the starting position before continuing the next repetition, as this will allow the tissue to receive blood that carries oxygen and nutrients through the movement of your lymphatic fluid, and it will also allow waste products generated during the stretch to be removed.
It is also important to monitor the stretch reflex carefully, as your tissue is stretched to the point of light irritation.
Then after two seconds release the tension to prevent reverse contractions of the tissues being stretched. You also want to make sure you are breathing properly by exhaling during the stretch, as this will oxygenate your tissue and fascia.
The Power Plate: Another Novel Form of Flexibility Training
If you’re looking for something unique to replace your static stretches, one of the programs I use several times a week is the Power Plate, which I have discussed before. The Power Plate works by vibrating in three dimensions, or three planes:
- Sagittal (front to back)
The Power Plate moves very quickly (25 to 50 times per second) across very small distances (one to two millimeters), so you aren't knocked off balance, but just enough so that your muscles must accommodate. When you stand on the vibrating Power Plate, or perform simple exercises on it, each muscle in your body reacts in a continuous flow of micro-adjustments, contracting reflexively. Just like when your leg automatically jerks after your physician taps it with his reflex hammer, your muscles react automatically to the Power Plate's vibrations – 25 to 50 times per second.
Stimulating your muscles and nerves this way results in more work being done by your body in a shorter period of time – with far greater recruitment of your muscle fibers. When the Power Plate vibrates up and down, your muscle tone improves. Left to right and front to back movements improve your balance and coordination, so the net result is a dramatic improvement in strength and power, flexibility, balance, tone and leanness.
It is really a very powerful way to rapidly improve flexibility for your legs, although it may not work as well for your neck and shoulders. The key to remember is that the old-fashioned advice to perform static stretches prior to exercise is now outdated. You’ll be far better off using a dynamic stretching program, such as AIS, the Power Plate or another form of active stretching, instead.