OrthoVirginia Blog

Stretching Made Simple

If you were to open a web browser and type the question, “When is the best time to stretch during a workout?,” you might find conflicting results.  For example, one of the top Google hits for this question is a Q&A message board in which numerous healthcare providers suggest different times at which to stretch.  The responses include, but are not limited to, stretching prior to a warm-up, after a warm-up but before a workout, and after a workout session.  Not only that, you may also find conflicting recommendations for the types of stretches to use at these various times, which may also vary depending on the nature of the intended workout (sports, therapeutic exercise, aerobic training, etc.).  In this sea of information it can therefore be difficult to determine which manner of stretching is best for you.  This blog post will discuss current research evidence on stretching in order to help you make a more informed decision about when, how long, and how often to stretch. 
First, it is necessary to describe the two primary types of stretches, static and dynamic.  Static stretching is the most common type of stretch and occurs when a position is held in a way that places a muscle on tension for an extended period of time.  The stretch is often repeated multiple times per session, and an example is displayed in the image below:

Dynamic stretching occurs when a limb is moved repeatedly through its full range to the end of the range of motion, which is where the stretch is felt.  This type of stretch is most frequently used in sports to prepare for performance-related activity, and an example can be seen in the image below:

Dynamic stretches have recently become more popular in sports because studies have shown them to be better suited for athletes.  The reason for this is that static stretching has been associated with strength and performance deficits in the period immediately following the stretch.  These effects, however, are negated if the stretch is performed before or after a warm-up.  So as long as warm-up activity is included, static stretching is still beneficial in sport-related activities.  The static type is thus a simple and effective stretch that is pertinent to the general population, and will therefore be the focus of the remainder of this blog post. 
We will now turn to the matter of stretch duration.  With static stretching, the greatest change in range of motion occurs when the position is held for between 15 and 30 seconds.  Increasing this duration is unnecessary and may in some cases become counterproductive.  The same can be said in terms of the optimal number of repetitions for a given stretch, as stretching too many times for a 15-30 second duration has been shown to negatively affect performance.  The optimal range has been demonstrated to lie between 2 and 4 repetitions.  After this time, no elongation in muscle occurs. 
In regards to how often to stretch, a study examining static stretching performed at frequencies of one, three, and five days a week found the same clinical benefit when stretching for 3 and 5 days of the week.  Both provided more benefit than stretching once a week, which means that a frequency of 3 days is optimal to increase range of motion and flexibility. 
To summarize, static stretching is a safe, simple, and effective means of improving flexibility across many individuals.  It is most effective when performed before or after a warm-up, for 15 to 30 seconds, 2 to 4 times per session, at a frequency of 3 days per week.  This agrees with the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations for a general fitness program, which states that static stretches should be:
  • Preceded by an active warm-up
  • Held for 15-30 seconds
  • Repeated 2 to 4 times
  • Performed at least 2 to 3 days per week
So whether you are stretching for a rehabilitation program, training for specific sport, or simply trying to stay flexible and healthy, I hope you found the above information helpful in establishing a safe and effective stretching program that works best for you.
 
Thomas Meeusen, SPT
Kiersten Page, DPT
 
 
 
Sources:
Page, Phil. (2012)  Current Concepts in Muscle Strengthening for Exercise and Rehabilitation.  The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.  Volume 7, number 1. 
Marques et al.  (2009) Effect of frequency of static stretching on flexibility, hamstring tightness and electromyographic activity.  Braz J Med Biol Res.  Oct; 42(10):949-53.