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The IMPACT! Body Plan

To Stretch or Not to Stretch Before Exercise

By Brett Klika, C.S.C.S.
Brett is the Director of Athletic Performance at Fitness Quest 10. Brett works with hundreds of athletes per year, from youth to professional, helping improve athletic performance and decrease the likelihood of injury. He has co-produced 2 sports performance DVD’s with Todd Durkin.

Flexibility is an important aspect of athletic performance at any level. Flexibility is your body’s ability to move each joint through it’s entire natural range of motion. When you are able to do this, you can create more powerful movements, and your muscles ability to shorten and lengthen quickly in a full range of motion will aid in preventing injury and increasing performance. In knowing this, it would seem very advantageous to make sure your muscles are at their maximum level of flexibility before you train or play in a game. There have been many findings in the research as to what type of flexibility activity is the most effective to improve performance and prevent injury. Unfortunately, many coaches and athletes either do not have access to this research, or chose to ignore the findings, sticking to what has been done in the past, regardless of the effectiveness. 

It is well established that before any type of vigorous activity, one should perform a general warm-up. This should be a fairly low or progressive intensity activity that raises the body’s temperature and heart rate for about 10-15 minutes. This should be done before one even attempts to “stretch” muscle fibers. The increased heat and blood flow helps by increasing the pliability of muscle tissue, as well as the related connective tissue. The decrease in rigidity aids in attaining greater ranges of motion with a decreased amount of resistance. Once this core temperature is increased, athletes should perform a dynamic warm-up.   

A dynamic, movement based pre-game flexibility protocol has been demonstrated in research to increase performance of dynamic activities (sprinting, jumping), and decrease the likelihood of injury during activity when compared to static flexibility or nothing at all. A large reason behind these positive effects is that a movement based warm-up requires the neuromuscular system to be highly activated. During this type of warm-up, the brain is establishing neuromuscular coordination, engaging the muscles in similar stretch-shortening cycles and movement patterns as one would see during their activity. In addition, due to the constant activity during this type of warm-up, the core temperature and heart rate stay elevated. This maintains muscle and connective tissue pliability. A dynamic warm-up should encompass the movements and ranges of motion you are likely to encounter during your activity. An example of an effective dynamic warm-up will be given at the end of this article. 

Due to lack of knowledge and/or experience, many coaches, particularly high school level and below, still stick to a static stretching protocol before activity. Static stretching involves holding the muscles in it’s maximal length for a sustained amount of time. An example would be touching your toes for 20 seconds to stretch the hamstring muscles. Although research on this flexibility protocol has demonstrated that it can increase the length of a muscle for a short period of time after the stretching regiment, its effects of performance and injury prevention have not been found to be positive. In actuality, this type of stretching protocol when used without a dynamic, movement based warm-up has been demonstrated to negatively influence performance and increase the likelihood of injury. From a practicality standpoint, consider the purpose for any activity you do before an athletic event. You want to take your body and brain from a fairly inactive, homeostatic state, to a highly aroused, high performing, alert, excited state. Standing around, touching your toes, and other non-movement based, static activities do not contribute to the process. Although the muscle fibers may become temporarily lengthened, they have not experienced the movement patterns, stretch shortening cycles, or actual coordinated ranges of motion you will see in your activity.   

While static stretching may not be suggested before an activity, it is very effective in aiding the recovery process after an activity. After activity, static stretching takes advantage of the highly pliable muscle and connective tissue, and lengthens the muscle fibers for a transient period of time while you are at rest. Over time, post-activity stretching has been found to improve all-around joint range of motion. 

In conclusion, the most effective pre-activity flexibility activity for performance enhancement and injury prevention is a dynamic warm-up utilizing movement patterns and joint ranges of motion that you will experience during your activity. After your activity, utilize static stretching to aid in the transient lengthening of the muscle fibers, over time, allowing for greater ranges of motion during an activity. 

Below is an example of a pre-game dynamic warm-up and movement prep.   

5 min jog
2x30 yard slow kareokas
2x30 yard light skips
2x20 yard backward skips
2x20 yard shuffles
2x20 yard backward jogs
2x20 high skips
20 seconds Jumping Jacks
20 seconds Seal Jacks
20 seconds Gate Swings
20 Rotating Hip Flexor Stretch
20 Frankensteins
20 Knee Hugs
20 Dirty Dogs Each Side
20 Lizards
20 Prone Thumb “Y”s
10 Push up and rotate
Sport Specific Warm-Up Drills 

 
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