Recent research on stretching and performance   Back to Training index

Some recent research suggests that stretching is not useful in warm-up, and may actually be detrimental. This runs pretty much counter to current recommendations (to put it mildly), so I dug around a bit and thought it was worth discussing my current info a little.

The scientific literature includes some recent papers that are most interesting. I. Shrier, Clin J Sport Med 1999 9(4):221-7), is a reasonably careful-looking review of prior literature on stretching and injury prevention. It has the rather suggestive title "Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury". You can guess the conclusion; there is not a lot of evidence for injury reduction following stretching in warm-up.

Another group of papers, typified by Church et al, J Strength Cond Res 2001 Aug;15(3):332-6, examines the effect of prior stretching on actual muscle performance. They looked in particular at PNF, an extreme stretching exercise. I quote:

A post hoc analysis revealed decreased vertical jump performances for the PNF treatment group. Based on the results of this study, performing PNF before a vertical jump test would be detrimental to performance."

(my boldface). Now, I'm not suggesting that PNF is much like what we do, and from my skim of the paper, the performance reduction was slight and in some cases not a reduction at all. Even the conclusion above is careful not to overstate the case. Also, this is one paper, and scientific papers are like swallows; it takes a lot to make a summer. But I found one or two others pointing the same way, plus the odd review questioning some long-held assumptions.

Now, warm-up still helps. You tend to feel more energetic, and more generally flexible, if you spend some time getting your body moving, so I remain convinced it's a good thing. But if the above is anything to go by, slow and steady movement (like elbow rotations) to increase range and remove any stiffness sounds a better bet during warm-up than static stretches held for 10-30 seconds.

I'll be looking for more information on this, and it'll appear here when I find any. 'Til then, keep an open mind.

Steve E. 21 Apr 02

PNF: proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. As far as the stretching component goes, this typically involves passive stretching (ie something a trainer does to an athlete) to the point of stretch reflex, holding, then stretching further. It is known to have outstanding effects on flexibility and is used a lot for that purpose.