Ask an Athletic Trainer: Static vs. Dynamic Stretching

Jerod Keene, MS, LAT has been an athletic trainer for six years and is in his fourth year working with Sport Clubs at UW-Madison. He completed his undergraduate degree in Athletic Training from UW-Madison in 2010 and his masters at Ohio University in 2013. He enjoys the wide variety of athletes he gets to work with and learning the idiosyncrasies of each sport. In his spare time, Jerod stays active by playing hockey, ultimate frisbee, running, and skiing.

Prior to almost any athletic event, most athletes stretch their muscles as part of their pregame routine. Sometimes athletes can spend up to 20 minutes stretching prior to competition. One might ask, why is this activity given such attention prior to competition? What goals are athletes hoping to achieve by stretching? Are athletes stretching to improve performance, prevent injury, or to just warm-up their muscles so they are ready to compete?

As an athletic trainer at University Health Services (UHS), I met a number of athletes who believed they were injured due to a lack of stretching prior to activity. While working on the sidelines of high school football games, I have seen coaches actually blame their players for their own injuries due to lack of stretching. Is this really why we get injured? Athletes have been stretching likely for thousands of years, but what does the research actually say about these exercises?

There are various types of stretching athletes can engage in prior to, during, or following activity. Static stretching is the most commonly used method and involves holding a muscle at its extended endpoint for roughly 15-30 seconds. Examples of static stretching include: straight-legged toe touches to stretch the hamstring muscles and holding the arm horizontally across the chest to stretch the posterior shoulder. We generally hold these stretches at a point where we feel mild to moderate discomfort, but sometimes athletes even push themselves into full-blown pain. Most athletes believe this type of stretching will make the muscles more flexible, and thus, less likely to injure or “tear” during activity. Intuitively, this theory seems reasonable, so why are we talking about it?

A lot of research has been done on the topic of stretching and the most telling results indicate that pregame static stretching does not reduce injury rates by even the slightest of margins. On the contrary, static stretching prior to activity has shown to actually reduce power and one-rep max significantly compared to controls. Static stretching does not appear to prevent injuries, but actually might reduce performance. Until future research shows otherwise, evidence has shown that spending precious warm-up time static stretching could be better spent on something else. So what should athletes do during their warm-up to prevent injury and improve performance?

Overwhelming evidence indicates that participating in a dynamic warm-up can provide the benefits athletes are attempting to achieve with static stretching. Benefits of a dynamic warm-up include: reduced injury rates, improved strength, agility and muscle flexibility. A dynamic warm-up includes briefly stretching muscles towards their end-point, while completing a functional task such as a lunge, skip, or shuffle. This type of warm-up often takes about 10-15 minutes to complete and should induce labored breathing and some sweating to achieve the desired benefits.

Although static stretching prior to activity may not be recommended, it is not entirely useless. Flexibility is still important to improve athletic function, especially in sports where an enhanced range of motion can benefit athletic performance, such as gymnastics. Enhancing flexibility via static stretching can benefit athletic performance in the long-run, but is best to be avoided prior to activity and instead conducted afterwards or during a separate training session. Instead, undergoing a dynamic warm-up prior to practice and competition can provide the benefits that athletes are attempting to achieve with static stretching, such as improved performance and injury prevention.