To stretch or not to stretch?

Patients always want to know if they should be stretching.  Here’s the scoop:


Does static stretching increase flexibility?

There is good evidence to support the fact that stretching does, in fact, increase flexibility1.  However, what was found to have an even better increase in flexibility was strength-training; the negative part of the exercise. For example, if you were bench-pressing, it would be the part where you are lowering the bar to the chest.  Unfortunately, flexibility is not a great predictor of future injury or sport performance.


What about performance?

Here’s one people are always surprised to find out- when we hold a stretch for 45 seconds or longer right before completing a high performance sport (like a one rep max in weightlifting or an all-out 100 meter sprint), we actually decrease performance!2  We decrease maximum strength, maximum endurance (like sprinting), and agility. DO NOT stretch before performing an activity that requires maximum effort (such as a one rep max, all out sprint, etc.).


Is your risk of injury decreased if you stretch?

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but according to the research, stretching does not decrease injury risk.  What is interesting is that this article3 supports the use of a strength training program to decrease overall injury risk.  Strength training was found to be even better than stretching when it comes to preventing injuries!  Making yourself stronger means better flexibility and decreased injury risk- a win-win in my book.

So, it appears the only thing static stretching is proven to be good at is increasing flexibility, but not as good as strength training.  Strength training gives you a better bang for your buck in terms of increasing flexibility and decreasing your risk of injury.


If not stretching, then what should you be doing?

Making sure all your muscles are firing and getting warm beforehand is your best bet.  It’s best to try and make sure the whole body is activated before any workout.  By activating your muscles before working them, you are telling your brain ‘hey, get ready to move the body and make sure all cylinders are firing.’

If you’re about to do a heavy squat, break-down the movement and activate all the necessary muscles beforehand with no weight at all.  From all the muscles in the legs, to the core, and upper body.  Then, complete a couple sets of the movement you are going to perform with very light or no weight.  First at 1/4 repetition depth, then 1/2 depth, and finally full depth.  Complete a few sets of body weight squats to help prime the nervous system and prep your body for the real deal.

How about preparing for a long jog?  A great routine to get into before a run is to do a dynamic warm-up.  This means we are activating our muscles through specific movements to get them ready for the run.  Here a few great dynamic movements to do before your next run (Walk for about 3-5 minutes before performing these movements):

  • Knee to chest- while standing, pull your knee to your chest and support your body on the other leg. Take one step forward and switch legs. Be sure to pull the leg as far as it can go.  Do 15 repetitions on each leg.
  • Walking lunge- Step into a lunge position, making sure you are able to keep your body stable the entire time. Drop the knee all the way to the ground and be sure to tuck your hips under your torso (think of pointing your belt buckle to the ceiling). Hold this end range position for 3 seconds while contracting your butt muscle (gluteus maximus) on the side where the knee is on the ground.  Complete 15 repetitions on each leg.

One thing to keep in mind is that you will not cause any harm by stretching.  Increasing flexibility is generally a good goal to have (remember, strength training is even better at this).  So, if you feel good after a bout of stretching, by all means have at it.  But if you’re looking for improving performance and preventing injury, dynamic muscle activation is the way to go.


  1. Behm DG, et al. Factors Affecting Force Loss With Prolonged Stretching. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiolgoy. 2001 Vol 26 (3): 262-272.
  2. Pope RP, et al. A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Official Jour of the Amer College of Sports Med. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 271-277.
  3. Thacker, S. B., Gilchrist, J., Stroup, D. F., & Kimsey, C. D. (2004). The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 36(3), 371-378. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000117134.83018.f7
  4. McMillan DJ, et al. Dynamic vs. Static stretching warm up: the effect on power and agility performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2006 Vol 20 (3).
  5. Herbert RD, Gabriel M. Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. BMJ 2002; 325:468.