There’s been quite the debate over warmups in the past 15 years—and over static stretching, in particular. But there’s new evidence that static stretching isn’t the workout-killer people had believed. Static and dynamic stretching, when incorporated into a full warmup routine (including an aerobic component that precedes and follows the stretches), won’t detract from exercise performance, and may even reduce muscle strain injury risk instead, according to a comprehensive review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism
So we jumped on the phone with lead study author David Behm, Ph.D., from the Memorial University of Newfoundland, to find out just how to incorporate static stretching into your regimen to get the maximum benefit. Here’s what he suggested.
The warmup, deconstructed
1. Aerobic component: 5 to 10 minutes of running or cycling
2. Static and dynamic stretching: 5 minutes (minimum)
3. Dynamic activity: 5 to 15 minutes that involve movements associated with your activity
1. Aerobic component:
Every athlete has his own needs, depending on their sport, so the stretches and their duration can be manipulated, but the aerobic component of the warmup is pretty universal. Behm suggests running or cycling for five minutes (up to 10 minutes) so your breathing frequency and heart rate begin to increase and you start to sweat. “The main thing is you want to get your core temperature up one to two degrees,” Behm says. “Of course, no one’s going to run around with a thermometer in his or her mouth, but as long as you start to sweat a little, that’ll tell you that your temperature has gone up one degree.”
2. Static and dynamic stretches:
If you’re a long-distance runner and endurance is the main component of your workout, you don’t really need an extensive range of motion. Behm explains: “The amount of static stretching of the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves could be minimal (e.g. 2-3 stretches of 15 seconds each for each muscle group) with a greater emphasis on dynamic stretching.” But for athletes who stop and go, pivot, and make abrupt, hard movements—athletes who play tennis, soccer, baseball, football, even CrossFitters) there should be a greater emphasis on static stretching, per Behm. You could do 3 stretches of 20 seconds each for the quadriceps, hamstrings, groin, abductors, calves, lower back, and shoulders, as well as dynamic stretches. [See below for specific stretch suggestions.]
“Five minutes of static stretching can decrease your incidence of injuries, but we also recommend you don’t hold a stretch for more than 60 seconds per muscle group, otherwise you may impair performance,” Behm says. What you can do is break things down; perform 4 stretches of 15 seconds each, or 3 stretches of 20 seconds each. “Rather than taking a rest between stretches, just go to the next muscle,” Behm advises. “It’s more efficient to do the stretching like a circuit.” And you can stretch for longer than five minutes so long as you keep that dynamic activity before and after. “The chances of getting performance impairments are very low when you format your warmup this way,” Behm adds.
No matter what your sport, everyone needs to stretch the major muscle groups. (This is not an exhaustive list—just examples.) You could perform the following:
- Neck and traps: upper trapezius stretch
- Shoulders and upper back: crucifix stretch
- Lower Back: sit and reach + windshield wiper
- Chest: bench chest stretch
- Abs: standing side bend
- Glutes: deep lunge + pretzel stretch
- Hamstrings: standing and walking hamstring stretch
- Quadriceps: bent knee hip extension
- Calves: elevated standing calf stretch + calf raises.
And if you’re going to do a any exercise that involves lateral movements (like we noted above), then you’ll want to add stretches for your groin and hips.
- Groin (adductors): happy baby pose
- Hips (abductors): half-kneeling hip flexor stretch
Some examples of some dynamic stretches and movements: High knees, butt kicks, walking lunges with rotations, Frankenstein walk, T-pushups, jump squats.
3. Dynamic activity:
Once the static stretching is complete, you’ll want to do an additional aerobic component. “The 5- to 15-minute dynamic activity should incorporate the movements involved in your activity so that the specific muscles are warmed up and the neural pathways are well established to ensure coordination,” Behm says. So, if you’re doing a track workout, do 5 to 10 jog to sprint accelerations; if you’re weightlifting, complete some bodyweight movements that mimic what you’ll complete with weights (air squats before weighted squats, for example).
The bottom line
Static stretching is good for broadening your range of motion and decreasing your chances of getting injured. But if you only did static stretching (and nixed any dynamic activity), you’d inhibit your central nervous system.
Essentially when you stretch your muscles, there are spindles that tell the central nervous system that your muscle is being stretched, how far it’s being stretched, and how fast it’s being stretched, Behm says. Think of when a doctor taps you on the knee; you’ve got a reflex. What happens there is when the quadricep was stretched, it sent a signal back to your motor neurons in your spinal cord and caused your quadriceps to contract, which is why your leg kicks up.
When you hold a stretch for a long period of time—which is what you do with static stretching—the dynamic part of that muscle spindle turns off. Static stretching tends to turn down or inhibits your reflexes, whereas dynamic stretching—because you’re moving your muscles through a range of motion and it’s continuing to activate those muscle spindles—excites the system.
“If you feel like you don’t have time to do a five-minute aerobic warmup followed by five minutes of static stretching, and another 10 minutes of a dynamic activity, remember: Just doing static stretching ups your workout impairment by about three to five percent,” Behm says. So if you’re in a rush, opt for dynamic stretches alone and save the static stretching for post-workout or another day.