Fitness: Is static stretching making a comeback?

Once considered a vital part of a workout, static stretching fell out of favour back in the early 2000s when it was discovered that stretching before exercise resulted in a small to moderate decline in performance. But that wasn’t the only revelation that caused the downfall of what used to be a staple of every warmup. Turns out that static stretching’s reputation as a panacea against injury was more myth than fact.

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With static stretching on the outs, dynamic stretching took its place as part of an essential pre-exercise routine with several studies demonstrating its positive effects on the workout ahead. But not all stretching routines are designed to improve strength, speed, power and agility. Sometimes the goal of stretching is simply to improve flexibility.

Greater mobility, improved posture and less muscle tension and soreness are just a few reasons why flexibility is important — all of which come in handy in the gym, playing sports and during the movements of day-to-day life. For some, flexibility comes naturally. Others have to work at it. And as you may have noticed, flexibility is joint or muscle specific, which means you can have perpetually tight hamstrings but flexible shoulders. Hence the number of people who can’t touch their toes but can scratch a nagging itch located between the shoulder blades or vice versa.

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The solution to joints that don’t move through a functional or desirable range of motion is to stretch. But there’s more than one type of stretching, which begs the question as to which is more effective at improving flexibility. It’s also worth knowing whether age, sex, fitness level or the intensity of the stretch makes a difference when it comes to the effectiveness of your stretching routine.

Searching for the same answers, a group of researchers from Memorial University in Newfoundland and Graz University in Austria reviewed 77 relevant studies on stretching that featured a total of 3,870 participants. The results should help direct not only which type of stretching will help achieve your fitness goals, but also how often you need to work on your mobility.

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The study’s most significant finding is that static and PNF stretching resulted in significantly greater increases in range of motion than ballistic and dynamic stretching, a finding that held for both recreational and elite athletes. But similar to previous studies, dynamic stretching proved the best option to wake up your joints and muscles prior to exercise.

“A potential explanation for why ballistic and dynamic stretching do not show such a high magnitude of change compared to PNF or static stretching might be found in the differences between the time under tension of the respective techniques,” said the researcher.

In short, holding a stretch for at least 15 seconds results in greater gains in flexibility than keeping the joint in motion, even if range of motion increases in the short term.

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As for the relationship between the frequency of stretching protocols and the effect on joint range of motion, there was no indication that stretching daily was any more effective than once a week.

“Based on these findings, it appears that stretching with a high volume and/or high weekly frequency might not be mandatory to maximize gains in ROM in the general population,” said the researchers.

Also worth noting is that, with the exception of those who need extreme ranges of motion to perform their sport or activity, there’s no need to stretch to the point of discomfort, even if you want to maximize flexibility. But for athletes like gymnasts or hockey goalies, there needs to be more research into whether pushing a stretch into the uncomfortable zone offers better results than less intense efforts.

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Finally, it seems that women gain greater ranges of motion from stretching than men, which isn’t surprising for anyone who has taken yoga classes. There are exceptions, of course, but most men are notably less flexible than women, an observation confirmed from the results of the studies reviewed.

How do you know if you’ll benefit from a regular stretching routine? Consider how difficult it is to reach down to tie up your shoes, pick weeds from the garden or get in and out of the car. You should also reflect on how low you can go when squatting or lunging (without weight) at the gym. If any of these actions feel forced, uncomfortable or there’s room for improvement, a weekly yoga practice or similar stretching protocol that involves more static than dynamic stretches is worth adding to your fitness routine.

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Stretching lexicon

Static Stretching

The muscle is stretched to the point of tension and held in its lengthened position for 15-30 seconds.


A pulsing or bouncing motion is used to stretch the muscle to the point of tension.

Dynamic stretching

Controlled movement patterns that gradually increase the joint range of motion (ROM) with a gradual increase in speed and ROM.

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF)

The muscle is stretched, contracted against resistance (usually provided by a partner or another body part) and then stretched again.

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