A three year old study about stretching is getting cited in
many articles today. And the conclusions reached by some writers
may be harmful to your health!
Is stretching before exercise harmful?
Some recent articles have made stretching before exercise out
to be a time-waster, not needed, and even harmful. This is not
true. In fact, there’s a recent 2003 study that evaluates all of
the research on stretching. Researchers conclude:
“Due to the paucity, heterogeneity and poor quality of the
available studies no definitive conclusions can be drawn as to
the value of stretching for reducing the risk of exercise-
(The efficacy of stretching for prevention of exercise-related
a systematic review of the literature, 2003, Weldon)
Study in question
The study generating all the hoopla was performed by the
Kapooka Health Centre, New South Wales, Australia on 1,538 army
recruits. It’s a creditable study to show the occurrence lower
limb injury on a group of young army recruits. Here is what the
researchers actually concluded:
A typical muscle stretching protocol performed during
preexercise warm-ups does not produce clinically meaningful
reductions in risk of exercise-related injury in army recruits.
Fitness may be an important, modifiable risk factor.
(A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of
lower-limb injury, 2000, Pope)
The statement, “Fitness may be an important, modifiable risk
factor” is very important. It simply means that age,
conditioning of the study subjects may be an important factor
facilitating the injuries in this study.
Based on the way some have written about this study, it’s okay
to run a 100 meter sprint full speed without stretching
beforehand. Now, this may be possible for a small number of
lean, young army recruits in Wales. However, does anyone believe
that a powerful, muscled-up NFL running back or middle-aged and
older adults can run a sprint cold without leaving both
hamstrings laying on the track? Don’t think so…
Use Common Sense
…and the full body of research
Think about it; if an out-of-shape couch potato (with just
enough muscle to change channels) performs high-intensity, fast-
twitch exercise, he may get injured … pre-stretched or not.
This is why researchers in 2003 concluded, after researching
all of the studies on this subject, “No definitive conclusions
can be drawn…” In short, there needs to be a body of research
based on age, weight, conditioning, and the study needs to be
performed for the specific sport and type of exercise before
life-changing conclusions are drawn.
The truth about stretching
First, yoga is great for you! Don’t let some writer using
sensationalism to sale a story to a magazine deter you from
Researchers show that prolonged stretching (in the form of
yoga) with moderate aerobic exercise and diet control will
reduce cholesterol and significantly reverse hardening of the
arteries (20 percent regression) in adults with proven coronary
After one year in a yoga program, participants lost weight,
reduced cholesterol, and improved their exercise capacity,
(Retardation of coronary atherosclerosis with yoga lifestyle
intervention, 2000, Manchanda).
If you’re involved in yoga, keep it up. If not, consider trying
out a session.
Use dynamic stretching before games
Researchers show that athletes should not perform prolonged
stretching routines before playing a game because it temporarily
slows muscle activation. Dynamic stretching – Neck Circles, Arm
Swings, Knee Rotations – may be better for pre-competition.
Prolonged stretching (stretch-and-hold “static” stretching)
slightly decreases strength for up to an hour after stretching
by slightly impairing muscle activation. (Reduced strength after
passive stretch of the human plantar flexors, 2000, Fowles).
Static stretching builds flexibility and should be performed
regularly, just not immediately before a big game.
Stretching as a Warm-up
Since warming up prior to anaerobic training is an absolute
rule – never to be broken – stretching can be combined (multi-
tasked) as part of the warm-up.
The goal of the warm-up is to get the blood flowing and raise
body temperature (one degree) prior to high-intensity workouts
and athletic competitions.
Gains in flexibility are dependent on the “duration” of stretch-
hold position, and researchers show the best “stretch-hold
position” (for time-spent) is 30 seconds. (The effect of time on
static stretch on the flexibility of the hamstring muscles,
1994, Bandy). “Best” means optimal results for time-spent. You
can get positive results with 2 minute stretch-holds, but 30
seconds yields positive benefits.
Remember to move slowly into the fully stretched-out position
and hold it 30 seconds. Also, move just as slow out-of the
stretch-hold position. This type of stretching produces gains in
flexibility, but it can cause injury, if you don’t listen to
your body and move in slow motion.
The take home
1. Currently involved in yoga? Research shows this is a wise
decision; keep it up.
2. The best way to improve flexibility is static stretching.
And using the 30 second stretch-hold is shown to produce great
3. Static stretching can be used as part of a warm-up for
training. However, static stretching will slightly slow you down
for an hour afterwards so examine your training goals.
4. Dynamic stretching (arm swings, hip rotations, toe touches)
will aid in the warm up process by increasing flexion in the
joints and increasing body temperature. This method is preferred
before athletic competition.
Phil Campbell. M.S., M.A., FACHE is the author of
Ready, Set, Go! Synergy Fitness
National Institutes of Health research cited: