Stretching has always been a part of fitness. Most of us were taught to believe that being able to touch your toes or grasp your hands with one arm over your shoulder and the other behind your back was linked to injury prevention, less sore muscles, and even better performance.
Although the American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching, or holding a pose that lengthens a muscle group, for 15 to 30 seconds three to five times at least twice a week, evidence to back up the benefits of this kind of stretching is pretty murky.
A meta-review of 12 studies published (pdf) in 2011 found that people who stretched before exercise were no less likely to experience muscle soreness than those who didn’t stretch; a 2010 study published by USA Track and Field found (pdf) that runners who stretched before working out were no less likely to be injured than those who did not over the course of three months. And as far as performance, some reviews even suggest that stretching before may worsen your ability to run or jump.
But this doesn’t mean we all need to stop stretching entirely—we just may have to change the way we do it.
Stretching is a good way to increase flexibility, or muscle length. Whenever we move in any way, even if it’s just reaching up to get something off a shelf, we need our muscles to lengthen in order to get the most mobility. In theory, being able to get the largest range of motion of our muscles means they can do more for us.
“From a performance standpoint, the greater range of motion you have, the more likely you’ll be able to generate more force, which may make you run faster or jump higher,” Jay Hertel, a kinesiologist at the University of Virginia told the Wall Street Journal (paywall). “In addition to that, from an injury-prevention standpoint, in theory you’ll also be better able to react in real-life situations, like when you’re about to fall or need to jump over something,” he adds.
In practice, static stretching may not yield all of these results. Instead, average amateur athletes—those who hit the gym regularly or play recreational sports—would be better off spending time dynamic stretching, according Philip Page, a physical therapist and athletic trainer based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Unlike static stretching, which just focuses on one kind of muscle movement, dynamic stretching is a type of movement that stretches many of your muscles in a range of motion similar to what you may be doing during your exercise. For example, instead of touching your toes to stretch the muscle that runs down the back of your leg, you could instead do soldier kicks, which involve keeping a straight back and swinging your straight leg forward. The exercises demonstrated in this video are a good full body warmup for a relatively fit person, according to Page.
“The literature supports that a dynamic stretch is going to have better results than a static stretch in a sprinting or power athlete,” Page said. For the most part, exercises that the general population may do fall into this category.
Some kinds of athletes such as hockey goalies or gymnasts do need to develop the largest range of muscle motion possible. They would benefit from adding some kinds of static stretching to a dynamic warmup.
In most cases, static stretching won’t hurt you and generally feels pretty good—although as a general rule, you shouldn’t go past the slight pain you feel stretching, according to Hertel. But if you want to get the most out of your workout, your time is better spent doing active stretches that give you a wider range of motion.