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Pre-training stretching: Common sense prevails again?

In fitness, a lot of training modalities go around in full circles, with a lot of people having extreme views and ideas on how and if something should be implemented. A few years ago everyone was obsessed with the idea that Olympic lifting was the best way to develop maximal speed, nowadays people are of the opinion they are too technical and take too much time to learn and develop. In strength training everyone used to use high intensity Bulgarian style training to develop maximal strength, whilst current trends are high volume, sub maximal training. What about warming-up? 10 years ago you would see everyone static stretching before a run or a gym session, fast forward and everyone is anti-static stretching, claiming reduced force and power output. So what is the answer? what does the data say? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

What does the data say?

A 2019 study by Marchetti (1) compared low intensity, long duration stretching to higher intensity, shorter duration stretching, and how performing these before strength training would affect range of motion and force-output. The findings showed no significant change in force output from the lower intensity group, but a 23% reduction in force output from the higher intensity stretching group when performing a maximal Hamstring isometric contraction directly after the stretching. Another study in 2017 by Junior (2) Showed a reduction in training volume (sets x reps x load) of 15-20% when comparing pre-training stretching to a group who just strength trained, this drop in training volume led to less muscle gain (hypertrophy) and potentially less strength gained in the long term.

These 2 studies used very intense stretching protocols, the first study used 40s stretching at an intensity of 85% of maximal discomfort (very intense stretching!). The second study used an intensity of 8/10 out of 10 of maximal discomfort and held the stretches for 25 seconds. If you compare these modalities to the model used in a recent study by Ferriera-Junior (3) you can see why the results found are conflicting . Ferriera-Junior found no reduction in Strength and Muscle growth when utilising a moderate intensity (5 out of 10 discomfort) and low volume stretching (1 set of 20s). This model is more in line with what people would typically do pre-training. I have never seen someone hold a ridiculously intense stretch for 40 seconds pre-training, but I see lots of people holding sub-maximal stretches for a short period of time whilst chatting to their friends and eating Haribo.

Low-intensity and volume stretching: No risk, low reward?

Low intensity stretching pre training, will not reduce force output, and wont decrease muscle growth. What it may do is help you achieve better shape and positions on the lifts or activity you’re going to perform, which may help you train the pattern more efficiently, helping you lift more consistently with better technique. This is ultimately what will make you get the most out of your time in the gym; consistently turning up, training hard and with solid technical prowess.

Taking a couple of minutes after arriving to the gym to stretch before getting into a more specific and faster paced dynamic and specific warm-up may also help get you in the right headspace, especially if you train straight after work/studying. If you need any more convincing, when I asked head of MSC injury clinic Max Hartman his thoughts on stretching pre training, he said “I don’t mind it”. Case Closed.

If you feel tight after a day at work, or your squat feels better when you stretch your hip-flexor before you train, go for it! Use common sense, don’t go crazy with the intensity of the stretch, or the length of time you are going to hold it for. As a guide Keep stretches around a 5 out of 10 intensity and for under 20 seconds and you will be fine 🙂 To cover all bases, follow your stretching up with a more dynamic and specific warm-up, this has been found to mitigate any potential negatives from stretching (4) making stretching pre-training a 0 risk, low reward activity!

Further reading