Is Stretching Important for Exercise and Sports?

By Dr. John R. Mishock

Stretching has been performed as a warm up and recovery modality in exercise and sports for many decades, if not centuries. The current body of research demonstrates that stretching can have several beneficial effects if used appropriately.

What is Stretching?
Stretching has been defined as: “the application of force to musculotendinous structures in order to achieve a change in their length, usually for the purposes of improving joint range of motion, reducing stiffness or soreness, or preparing for an activity.” (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011).

There are many forms of stretching used in physical therapy, however, I will review dynamic and static stretching and its use in exercise and sports.

Dynamic stretching is a series of compound movements that mimic motions found in the activity or sport. Dynamic stretching is done prior to the exercise or sport as a way to prepare the body for movement. Studies have shown that dynamic stretching can: increase blood flow to muscles and tendons, heighten or ramp up the nervous system for coordination and movement, and increase brain activity for read and react skills. Ultimately, the benefits of dynamic stretching will allow the participant to improve performance and potentially decrease injury. Five to ten minutes of dynamic stretching should be done immediately prior to the exercise or sport.

Static stretching refers to a single stretching movement to a given area that is held for > 30 seconds and repeated multiple times. Static stretching has been shown to: dampen the nervous system improving relaxation, changes in the mechanical properties of the muscle-tendon unit increasing flexibility and range of motion. It also reduces blood flow to the muscles and tendons, thus reducing post-exercise soreness. Therefore, static stretching should not be performed prior to an activity or sport. Instead static stretching should be done after activity or sport to help the body with physiological recovery.

There is some debate on the amount of muscle soreness that can be reduced with static stretching following exercise and sports. An extensive meta-analysis of over 2,500 participants concluded that post-exercise stretching reduces muscle soreness by 1-4%. (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011). But in recovery, possibly every little bit counts.

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