Warming up: does stretching actually hinder sports performance?

Sport science research suggests stretching hampers performance

It is commonly believed that the warm-up and stretching before a workout will reduce the risk of injury and (but see Professor Sharp’s letter earlier in this issue) help the athlete to perform better during training and competition. But what if stretching prior to strength and power events actually results in reduced performance?

¬†Researchers at Appalachian State University in the US carried out a review of available literature in an attempt to establish what effects a bout of stretching has on sporting performance (Schilling, BK & Stone, MH (2000). ‘Stretching: acute effects on strength and performance.’ Strength & Conditioning Journal, vol 22, no 1, pp 44-47). The results make interesting reading for support staff and athletes working or competing in strength and power events. Initial studies examined strength in the lower extremities using isokinetic dynamometers. These studies found that strength was not impaired by bouts of stretching, warm-ups or massage. However, Schilling and Stone point out that the speed of movements typically seen during actual sporting events are considerably higher than velocities produced by isokinetic dynamometers, calling into question the applicability of the research to actual athletic events.

The research team then went on to review two more studies that examined the effects of acute stretching on movements typically encountered by athletes during competition and training. The first study examined the effect of stretching knee and hip extensors on jump performance. Following a bout of stretching, both static and counter-movement jump heights were decreased, a serious problem for budding basketball players or high jumpers. The second study demonstrated that a bout of stretching reduced mean strength in the leg muscles when performing 1 RM leg extensions and curls, which is not good news for athletes who spend a lot of their training developing strength and power in the gym.

The researchers at ASU concluded that current findings suggest that acute stretching may have a detrimental effect on subsequent strength and power performance. As a guide, athletes may consider performing pre-exercise stretching at least 20 minutes before the event, although more research is needed before definite training recommendations can be established.

Nick Grantham