The Stretching vs Warming Up Debate

Recently someone posted this article on UKC, printed in theĀ New York Times, now you should instantly question the scientific validity of a journalist perspective on what in all likelihood is a review of a review of stretching. Whilst I don’t doubt Gretchen Reynolds scientific credentials, I do question her academic integrity, after all her editor wants ‘good’ copy, rather than a in depth analysis of all the stretching literature.

I suspect that whilst much of her advice is true, a look back at the research, and the actual findings bring much of the context into when that advice is actually applicable. Like most thing in life there are several caveats that can and should be applied to general laws or rules that are often applied to stretching.

In the NYT Article there are several points made that can be argued reasonably easily with a brief overview of research literature, however many of these are perhaps taken out of context, and may only apply to the Olympic athlete.

Stretching Reduces Muscle Strength
Now whilst this is true, we are only talking about a 2% to 5% reduction, these studies have only look at weakening directly after stretching. So unless you are an Olympic athlete about to go for gold then does such a small drop in performance really make than much difference to you.

Stretching Increases Muscle Strength
In direct opposition to this stretching reducing muscle strength, is that if stretching is performed regularly, but not immediately before activity. Has been shown to lead to a 2% to 5% increase if strength if carried out regularly.

Stretching Helps Prevent Injury
There is a great quote from the NYT article about stretching and injury prevention.

The largest study has been done on military recruits; results showed that an almost equal number of subjects developed lower-limb injuries (Shin Splints, stress fractures, etc.)”

This highlights one of the problem when it comes to interpreting scientific research. This statement however true is questionable because how do you expect stretching to prevent stress fractures, the only type of injury stretch might be expected to prevent can surely only be a skeletal muscle or soft tissue injury. Interesting the same military study did conclude that soft tissue type injuries were significantly reduce.

Again research points towards different effects regards when you stretch. So stretch immediately before activity has little to no effect with injury prevention, however regular stretching not prior to exercise has been shown to reduce soft tissue type injuries.

Warming up reduces injury
At present it would appear that warming up prior to activity is key, in that its purpose is to help increase heart rate, dilate the capillaries, warm up the muscles and speed up nerve transmissions. Current research suggest that prior to a main activity then stretching might not be of benefit for injury prevention and may reduce muscle strength.

However a small increase in muscle temperature has been shown to reduce the likelihood of a muscle tear in isolated rabbit muscles.

In terms of warm ups the current thinking is working between 40-60% of you maximum for as long as it take you to develop a light sweat. It will take a fitter person longer to achieve a warmed up state than a less fit person. An alternative to jogging or light exercise is a passive warm up that might take the shape of a hot bath or shower.

TAKE HOME MESSAGE

  • It may not be advantageous to stretch immediately prior to activity, as it doesn’t help prevent injury and reduces muscle strength.
  • Using stretching as a general activity, when not training can increase you range of motion and help reduce injury.
  • Warm up before any activity session.
  • Warm up passively or activity prior to stretch session

For more information on warming up and stretching try visitingĀ how to climb harder.

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