The TRUTH about Static Stretching!

The TRUTH about Static Stretching!

Emily R Pappas, M.S.

We hear it from coaches and their parents all the time: Make sure you stretch! All these girls keep getting injured because they aren’t stretching!!


But does stretching actually HELP?  


Yes stretching helps increase your joint mobility, and that will help decrease your injury risk.


But is that ENOUGH to help reduce your risk of injury?


Is stretching the golden ticket to keeping female athletes healthy??

Quick Answer: NO.


Keep reading to find out why….


The Science of Joint Mobility


When considering the importance of stretching, you need to first know what we mean by joint mobility and its role in preventing injury. 


The mobility of a joint determines the maximum range of motion the joint can move through without injury.

Increasing joint mobility allows for movement in more favorable positions.  These are positions allow better biomechanics for loading your muscles in a way that maximizes their ability to both produce and absorb forces. 


Injury occurs when ill-equipped tissues (like ligaments and bones) are exposed to too high forces for them to handle.


These tissues get exposed to such forces when your muscle  1) is simply not strong enough to handle the outside force  2) is not positioned favorably via the joint  or 3) a combination of both.


Increasing your joint mobility will allow for better positions.  BUT you must also be strong in those positions to really help reduce your injury risk!


Does Static Stretching Help? 


Static stretching is the process of pulling your body into a certain position and holding that position for several seconds (30-60s). Think of when you grab your ankle towards your butt to stretch your quad and hip. This is a static stretch!


The resulting range of motion of the joint has been shown to last for around 3-15min POST stretch! 


Repeated bouts of static stretching over longer time ranges, like weeks, has also been shown to help improve the “set point” of a joint’s mobility. Think about if you start attending a yoga class 2x a week.  After a month, your body is MUCH more able to achieve certain positions than it was when you started!


Simply put, static stretching helps increase the range of motion of your joint!  Remember, better range of motion = better chance of loading your muscles more favorably during high force activities such as during your game or lifts!


BUT…. without strengthening that improved range of motion, better positions alone will not be enough to reduce your chance of injury.


This is why strength training is a MUST for the female athlete. 


So if you are strength training, then when is the best time to static stretch?  


Many coaches include static stretches in warm ups to prepare your body for training with the hopes of reducing your changes of injury come game time.  


However, research suggests static stretching in the warm up will NOT help you in the way you want them to…..


The Goal of the Warm Up


Why do you even warm up? Well, when you increase the blood flow to your muscles before a game or training, they are better able to PERFORM when called upon. 


More blood flow means an increased delivery of nutrients, oxygen, and other essentials to your muscles when they will need them most.


Think of it this way, as your muscles receive more blood flow, they start to “wake up.”  The more ALERT or prepared your muscles are prior to performance,  the better their ability to PRODUCE high forces—quickly—like when you are kicking a ball, sprinting down a field, or snatching a PR.


The more ALERT or prepared your muscles are prior to performance, the better their ability to also ABSORB high forces.  This is extremely important when considering reducing your chances of injury.  Remember, you want your muscles to absorb outside forces as they are more equipped to handle them, rather than your ligaments and bones!   


So, since the goal of the warm up is to INCREASE blood flow, is static stretching the best way to go about it? 


Research tells us NO.


Static vs. Dynamic Stretching

In a static stretch, the opposing muscles of a joint are under high muscular tension. High tension constricts the capillaries of the muscle.  When capillaries are constricted, blood flow DECREASES.  Lack of blood flow to the muscle means less alert muscles for performance!  Definitely not the goal of your warm up. 


Then what should you do to get your body to achieve better ranges of motion with blood flow before your game?  Dynamic Stretching!


In a dynamic stretch, you MOVE your joint through a larger range of motion via MOVEMENT vs a static hold.   Think about performing a split squat. A couple sets of 5-8 per leg allows your quad and hip to achieve a similar range of motion as a static stretch, but with the added bonus of blood flow!  


This increase in blood flow means more awake muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This means muscles that will be better able to PRODUCE FORCE and ABSORB IT during game time.  



When Static Stretching HELPS and When it HURTS


Static stretching will definitely help you get into more favorable positions. But as we stated earlier, this is only long lasting when the stretches are performed repeatedly over a longer period of time. AND the improved positions gained from stretching are only favorable when those positions are also strengthened! 


Before your game or training, performing static stretching will only help with joint mobility in the short-term. Short term joint improvements are not enough to reduce your chance of injury.  To make matters worse, decreasing blood flow to your muscles may actually increase your chance of injury!


If that isn’t enough to deter you from stretching before your game, studies show static stretching prior to training or game time can even COMPROMISE your performance.


This is especially true for high-speed, high-force sports that requires movements like sprinting and jumping. When you stretch a muscle for long periods of time prior to performance, studies show there is a DECREASE in your muscle’s ability to produce higher forces. This means slower sprints or lower jumps.  


Research shows similar negative results of stretching prior to strength endurance sports like rowing.   Muscles that are exposed to static stretching prior to performance have been shown to have a DECREASE in the muscles’ ability to sustain a higher force output for a longer period of time.  This means less powerful rows later in the race, when you need them most!


When Should you Static Stretch?

Decreasing your risk of injury depends on your body’s ability to move its joints into more favorable positions and strengthening those positions


Long term static stretching via yoga or other practices (even through strength training itself!)  will help your joints improve their mobility.   


BUT, the improved mobility is only going to help you in the LONG TERM if you strengthen this newly acquired joint mobility.  


So when the heck should you do it?


Outside of your training time!


Try adding a yoga class in addition to your lifting routine, or even finding a strength coach the prioritizes the quality of your movements.


Static stretching is helpful, but static stretching alone is not enough to reduce your chance of injury!  


Remember,  joints that can reach more favorable positions must also be STRONG in those positions!




Thomas and Williams, Alun G. “Effects of differential stretching protocols during warm-ups on high speed motor capacities in professional soccer players”. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 20 (1). (2006). pp. 203-7. ISSN 1064-8011

Andersen, J. C. “Stretching Before and After Exercise: Effect on Muscle Soreness and Injury Risk.” Journal of Athletic Training 40.3 (2005): 218–220. Print.

Warren Young & Simon Elliott. “Acute Effects of Static Stretching, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching, and Maximum Voluntary Contractions on Explosive Force Production and Jumping Performance”.  Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 72:3, 273-279, (2001). DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2001.10608960