Most of us know that stretching can be beneficial, yet most of us don’t take the time to do it. When we think of stretching we often get a picture in our heads of staying in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, hoping out tissues will soften and yield. This is what is known as static stretching. But what is static stretching exactly, and what other options are there?
According to Bandy et al, “Static stretching is performed by placing muscles at their greatest possible length and holding that position for a period of time.” These are very familiar stretches to most of us, and include things such as sitting in a pike position to target the hamstrings, stretching in a straddle for the adductors, or bending one knee and pulling your foot towards your butt for a quad stretch. Timing may vary a bit from 10 seconds to beyond 60 seconds. Some studies have found that 30 seconds seemed to offer the best results for hamstring lengthening, and that there was no statistical difference (ie benefit) in holding the stretch for 60 seconds or more regarding improvements or increases in range of motion.
Some of the static stretches are best done with the help of a strap. One of my favorite straps to use can be found here. It offers several loops, which allows you to use the length that best suits your needs today, and gives you room to grow and improve. In the PT world, we use these straps regularly. Another strap that I use in my stretching routine is my yoga strap. It’s very easy to use, and goes with me to every yoga class. If you’re really in need of a strap, and don’t yet have one (or the one you’ve ordered hasn’t yet arrived), you can even use things like a jump rope or a long towel. You want to make sure that whatever you use isn’t stretchy, though.
Looking through the research, I did not find any study that concluded that static stretching did not increase range of motion in some way. Therefore, static stretching certainly works. Arguments in the scientific community seem to arise about when static stretching should be performed, which is what we talked about in the last blog post. In case you haven’t read it yet, some studies conclude that static stretching can affect power and strength. One concluded the following:
“When all relevant studies are examined in toto, the results of the present review seem to largely agree with previous suggestions that acute static stretching can reduce maximal muscle performance. Forty-four percent of all variables included in our analyses (144 findings) from 106 studies showed significant reductions in maximal strength-, power-, or speed-dependent performance. However, a more detailed examination reveals clear evidence that no performance decrements in strength-, power-, or speed-dependent tasks occur when total stretch durations are 60 s. We found there to be only minor differences in the effect across muscle contraction modes or muscle groups and no substantial effect of movement velocity.”
Keep in mind that these are total stretch times per given muscle group. Still, other studies find that static stretching can be detrimental to things like maximal voluntary contraction of the quadriceps (Power et al), jumping (Bradley et al), balance, reaction time, and movement time (Behm et al). It’s important to note, however, that some of these studies have been conducted on small sample sizes and some only included men.
What does all this mean? It means that static stretching works to increase things like hamstring and quadriceps flexibility, but that you may want to do static stretching at the end of your workout instead of at the beginning. As more evidence emerges (and it seems to be doing so at an increasing rate), please keep in mind that this may change. This is simply the best evidence that science has provided us right now.
In the next blog post, we’ll continue the discussion on stretching, but shift gears from static stretching to PNF stretching. What the heck is PNF, you say? Stay tuned to find out!