by NSCA's Guide to Program Design
Kinetic Select September 2018
Although static stretching enhances flexibility, which is a well-recognized component of health-related fitness (1), there is little scientific evidence to suggest that pre-event static stretching prevents activity-related injury or enhances athletic performance (32, 47, 50, 53). Even athletes who compete in sports that require high levels of flexibility, such as gymnastics or diving, must consider both the potential benefits and the related concerns when deciding whether or not to include static stretching exercises in the warm-up routine.
A growing body of research evidence indicates that pre-event static stretching of the prime movers may actually have a negative effect on force production, power performance, strength endurance, reaction time, and running speed (4, 10, 11, 19, 34, 40, 41). In one research study that examined the effects of static stretching on sprint performance in collegiate track-and-field athletes, researchers reported a 3% decrease in sprinting performance at 40 m following pre-event static stretching (57). It has also been shown that pre-event ballistic stretching (i.e., bouncing movements) and stretching techniques for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), which involve both passive movements and active muscle actions, can also inhibit strength and reduce explosive power (6, 39). Although some data suggest that pre-event static stretching has no short-term effect on performance measures (23, 33), a majority of the available evidence indicates that it can have detrimental effects on subsequent performance.
This stretching-induced effect is thought to be related to a decrease in neural activation, reduced musculotendinous stiffness, or a combination of neural and muscular factors (3, 20, 24). Since static stretching can result in muscle damage (as evidenced by elevated levels of creatine kinase in the blood), it is also possible that tissue damage could explain, at least in part, stretching-induced decrements in performance (51). While the undesirable effects of an acute bout of static stretching on performance are increasingly apparent, additional research is needed to determine the precise mechanisms underlying the performance decrements, as well as the particular stretching protocols and performance conditions that produce this adverse effect.
Of note, the observed reductions in performance following static stretching may, in some cases, last up to one hour (20). Since even a 1% change in performance can have a noticeable influence on the outcome of an athletic event in both individual and team sports, the small but significant changes in performance following an acute bout of static stretching should be considered by sport coaches and strength and conditioning professionals. Indeed, several fitness and medical organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine (1), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (28), and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (32) contend that pre-event static stretching may adversely affect athletic performance, particularly in sports that involve strength and power.
This is not to say that static stretching should be eliminated from an athlete’s program, but it should be sensibly incorporated into the daily training regimen, since chronic stretching can enhance the range of motion around a joint and potentially improve strength and power performance (35, 52). Consequently, most athletes should perform static stretching during the cool-down or as part of a separate training session. In some cases, however, athletes who participate in sports that require high levels of flexibility may benefit from pre-event static stretching. For example, gymnasts who need to improve flexibility may perform pre-event stretching exercises after a general warm-up, provided that they perform a series of dynamic movements prior to training or competition.
Because static stretching has traditionally been a part of many warm-up routines, strength and conditioning professionals need to genuinely appreciate each athlete’s prior beliefs about pre-event static stretching when prescribing flexibility training protocols for sport teams. In some instances, athletes who routinely perform static stretching (and have strong beliefs about its value) may need to be educated about the undesirable consequences of an acute bout of static stretching on athletic performance. They should be gradually introduced to pre-event protocols that include dynamic activities.
Developed by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), this text offers strength and conditioning professionals a scientific basis for developing training programs for specific athletes at specific times of year. The book is available in bookstores everywhere, as well as online at the NSCA Store.