In all manner of sports, exercise and athletic endeavors, it had long been an inviolable law that flexibility exercises be performed before and after every event, session or workout. It was that way when I played high school sports (which is longer ago than I care to think about), and I still see it being done these days by runners prepping for their workout, beer league soft-ballers and even my son’s little league team (until I put a stop to it). The most commonly used technique back then was called “static stretching,” during which the exerciser stretches a muscle to the full extent of their ability and holds it for 15-30 seconds.
In the late 80s I began to take notice of how my body reacted to my stretching regimen during my workouts. I was a long-distance runner back then and I noticed that I had more muscle tension and slower times on the days that I remembered to do a vigorous, thorough stretch than on the days when I did not. As my education progressed and I learned how the body works I came to the conclusion that stretching a cold muscle before exercise did not make sense.
Since then my approach to training has been to advise my clients against pre-exercise static stretching. And, from what I can see, most fitness trainers work the same way. Bolstering that approach is new research that seems to support the clinical findings and methods of field professionals like myself.
- In April, 2013, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning published a study conducted at Austin University in which the researchers tested the acute effect of pre-exercise passive static stretching upon lower body strength and stability. The study demonstrated an 8.36% reduction in lower body strength and 22.68% loss in lower limb stability following the pre-exercise stretch. The findings of this study suggest that passive static stretching should be avoided before exercise.
- Researchers in Croatia performed a meta-analysis of over 100 strength and conditioning papers published between 1966 and 2010. They found that pre-exercise static stretching reduced muscle strength an average of 5.5%.
It is gratifying to know that emerging research supports the way fitness professionals in the field are training their clients. That being said, a good warm-up routine is still necessary to ensure a safe, productive exercise session. My recommendation is to incorporate a joint-mobility program that uses dynamic movements to warm your muscles and prep them for exercise. Here are a few suggestions for a safe, effective warm-up:
- Neck Rolls – Gently let your head rest to one side then slowly roll the head toward the other side with the chin tucked toward the chest at all times. Repeat 6 times each side.
- Shoulder Shrugs – With arms hanging at the sides, elevate both shoulders straight up toward the ears, then push them backward and complete the circle by rolling them back down to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
- Arm Circles – Hold arms straight out to the side form the shoulders. Make 10 small circles with the hands in a clockwise rotation and then repeat counter-clockwise.
- Egyptians – With arms stretched out to the sides from the shoulders and legs shoulder-width apart, turn to one side on the balls of your feet keeping the arms stretched out so that one is now stretching out behind you and the other is stretched in front. The hands should be palms up. Knees should be bent in a Â¼ squat. Repeat 10 times each side.
- Knee Circles – With feet close together and knees slightly bent, place hands on knees and make 10 or 15 small clockwise circles. Repeat counter-clockwise.
- High Steps – Stand with feet shoulder width apart and hands held out in front above knees just below sternum level. Raise the knee with leg bent until knee touches hand. Repeat 10 times each side.
- Side Squats – Stand with feet spread wide apart and hands clasped out in front of chest. Sink down to a squat over one knee while the opposite leg straightens and the foot turns up on to the heel. Push up with squatting leg to starting position and repeat on opposite side. Repeat 10 times each side.
Try this alternative warm-up for your pre-exercise routine. It is, in my opinion, safer and more effective. For those who feel that they still need a good stretch, by all means, do so; just wait until the end of your workout when your muscles will be heated up and much more amenable to elongation.