Static stretching is a form of stretching that holds muscle in a sustained position for a duration of time to elongate muscle tissue. It is the form of stretching that most often comes to mind when you think about what stretching is. In recent times, fitness professionals have voiced criticism about static stretching, citing new research which suggests that static stretching before exercise can decrease muscle power and that stretching prior to workout is not linked to reduced injury rates. This information has deterred some athletes from static stretching in fear of compromising athletic performance and has created a feeling that time spent performing this activity is not valuable.
In reality, for the majority of the population who seek general fitness and wellness, the benefits of stretching far outweigh losing a few seconds on a mile time or a few millimeters on a vertical leap that a slight reduction in muscle power may bring. Instead of avoiding static stretching, athletes should sequence their exercise and stretching based on their goals. In contrast to the elite athlete where static stretching may be best after a peak workout, for the majority it makes sense from a functional exercise perspective to warm up, then stretch, and then perform strengthening exercises. From this sequencing, the athlete can train their motor neurons to functionally carryover newly achieved muscle length.
A literature review confirms that static stretching is an important component of a fitness program. Research shows that holding static stretches for 30 seconds and performing a consistent program for 8 weeks is proven to lengthen muscle tissue. The beneficial effects of static stretching take time, and consistent performance is a key factor to yield optimal results. The main purpose of why we should perform static stretching is to improve muscle length. Over time if muscle length is decreased, subsequent flexibility impairments at the joint capsule and surrounding connective tissue may occur.
Skeletal muscle (example: hamstring, quadriceps) is a type of striated muscle. Striated muscle is composed of muscle fibers, which further broken down structurally is composed of myofibrils. Myofibrils are what we are looking to lengthen during static stretching. This is an important concept to understand, being that muscle is the target of static stretching.
The cellular components of muscle in comparison to ligaments and tendons are significant. If you do not understand where the muscle is anatomically in comparison to its tendon and nearby ligament structures, you could be at risk for injury if your stretch is loading the wrong structure. Tendons and ligaments do not have the same ability to stretch as muscles do. In fact, over stretching these tissue types can cause injury and hypermobility at the nearby joints. Research indicates that stretching a tendon 4% beyond its normal length can lead to permanent damage, and may be a reason why after stretching some participants report pain and discomfort, then subsequently avoid a flexibility routine.
The above photo describes the anatomy of the hamstring. You can see the red muscular component of the hamstring, where you should feel sensation during static stretching. The white structures are tendons, located behind the knee, and should not be stretched. Commonly performed hamstring stretches are a half split in yoga, or a traditional runner hurdler stretch. When next performing a hamstring stretch, consider where you are feeling a sensation to determine if you are appropriately performing the exercise and actually stretching muscle. This same principle is applied to all stretches and their targeted muscle groups.
In summary, the purpose behind static stretching is to increase myofibril length. A literature review supports holding stretches for 30 seconds for optimal results. Over 6-8 weeks you should begin seeing changes in flexibility. Static stretching is a valuable component to all fitness programs when the target muscle tissue is being stretched appropriately (vs. tendon and ligament structures) and when the sequencing of stretching and exercise are individualized to the athlete's goals. Static stretching can yield improved joint range of motion, preserve optimal joint kinematics, reduce muscular pain, improve gait mechanics, and reduce joint pain caused by biomechanical errors from shortened muscle groups.
If you are interested in starting a flexibility routine or are unsure if you are performing your daily stretching routine correctly, contact a health care professional to ensure that you are addressing the appropriate tissue to achieve the benefits of static stretch.
Carla Pryor PT, DPT, OCS, RYT 200. Co Owner of Redefine Health and Fitness located in North County San Diego. Redefine is a wellness based company focused on providing excellent comprehensive and research driven care to assist clients in meeting their fitness and nutrition goals. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further inquiry.