Everyone knows the secret to a safer, more effective workout: several minutes of stretching beforehand, to get the blood flowing and make muscles limber, right?
Think again. Many experts have cooled off on old-fashioned warm-ups. Sure, you still see plenty of people at your gym doing side bends and touching their toes for a spell before spin class, but these routines, like Jane Fonda-style leotards and legwarmers, are, for the most part, terribly outdated. “Moves like those—when you focus on a single group of muscles and hold the pose for twenty to thirty seconds—are called static stretches, and they can do more harm than good,” warns Cody Foss, director of Performance Training at the Newtown Youth Academy in Newtown, Connecticut.
If this seems counterintuitive, consider what happens when you stretch. Muscles are made of tiny units called sarcomeres, which interlock with each other almost the way combs do when arranged teeth-to-teeth. This gives muscles their elasticity. As you stretch, the spaces between the sarcomeres’ “teeth” grow, pulling the elastic taut and, depending on how far you stretch, putting pressure on the surrounding connective tissue as well. When you do a static stretch, it keeps the elastic expanded for some time. The result: It becomes weakened and less able to respond nimbly to whatever demands you put on it next. “Static stretching tends to over-lengthen muscles and decrease the amount of power they produce,” says Nick Cerone, fitness director at THE GYM in Armonk.
“For example, if you’re going to be lifting weights after that, you won’t be able to bench as much. Your ligaments get lengthened, too. If you’ll be playing a sport that requires you to change directions quickly, you may not be able to maneuver fast enough and can end up with a ligament tear. Sometimes in the park, I see guys doing static stretches—for instance, a quad stretch—before playing football. They’re bringing their foot behind them up to their butt while standing, and holding it there. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I hope that knee doesn’t give out later.’” In addition to tears, athletes can also end up with so-called “pulled muscles”—another term for muscle strain caused by sudden and powerful movement that stretches the tissue beyond its usual range. This causes stabbing pain, and can result in decreased flexibility over time.
So why do people persist in a pre-exercise ritual that does little besides potentially hamper their performance? “Someone told them to do it at some previous point, and they feel it’s something they should do,” says Maik Wiedenbach, owner of Adler Training in Manhattan, who provides training and dietary assistance to a variety of high-powered execs. He adds that pro-stretch types have convincing-sounding arguments. “Besides saying that static stretching guards against injury, they claim it makes a muscle more malleable. But how would that work? You’d need to change the structure of the muscle itself, something you can only do by stretching it through its full range of motion with weights.”
A growing body of scientific research backs the trainers’ skepticism on static stretching. Two of the most recent studies examined its effects on running. The first, published last fall in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, concluded that runners are actually less efficient if they do static stretches before hitting the track. The second, presented at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ annual meeting in February, crunched data from 2,700 runners and found that while stretching didn’t cause more injuries, it didn’t prevent them, either. And after scrutinizing more than 100 studies on stretching, officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who stretched before exercising were no less likely to suffer related injuries like pulled muscles.
Does this mean that static stretching is bad in and of itself? Yoga, for example, is pretty much all about it. The answer is not at all—it does help improve flexibility and blood flow to muscles—but it shouldn’t be done before something very active and demanding. Nor does it mean you shouldn’t warm up at all. “There’s a new trend toward dynamic stretching, where you hold the stretch for only about two seconds,” says Foss, whose clients have included NFL athletes and the Knicks City Dancers. A typical dynamic stretch, he explains, goes something like this: Go into a lunge, reaching your hands toward the ceiling as you start your descent. Hold for two seconds. As you come out of the lunge, stand into a quad stretch, incorporating a calf raise on the ball of your foot and balancing in that position for another two seconds. “If you can visualize what’s going on there, it more closely mimics some of the patterns of walking, jogging, or sprinting,” Foss notes. “It makes all the joints in your body work together and targets multiple spots; you’ll have stretched your hip flexor and quadriceps, and activated your calf muscle, while incorporating a single-limb balance.” Talk about multitasking!
The less coordinated shouldn’t fret. Another option that Cerone recommends is to preface your workout with a simple light cardio routine—five to 10 minutes on an elliptical machine, or walking, jogging, or biking. Indeed, there’s no need to forgo a warm-up that’ll help you reach for the stars as an athlete. Just don’t hold that pose too long.
Deborah Skolnik is a senior editor at Parenting and a mother of two in Scarsdale who writes frequently on health.