When I tell an athlete I haven’t worked with before to warm up for a session the first thing I see them do is take a knee, straighten out their leg, and begin to stretch their hamstring statically. It is the go to. The problem with this is that static stretching before a training session can actually decrease performance and may even increase the risk of injury.
Most people are familiar with what a static stretch is. It is where you stretch as far as possible and hold that position for a given amount of time, there is no motion once the full stretch has been reached. Static stretching before a workout can weaken muscles increasing risk of injury and decreasing power output. It has been shown that static stretching can decrease strength by as much as 5-30% and can decrease power by 17% for up to 90 minutes!
When I tell my athletes this they are usually shocked and say “so stretching is bad for you?” Stretching isn’t bad for you. You just have to use the appropriate method at the correct time.
Before a training session or game I would prefer to use a ballistic/dynamic stretch or even some PNF stretching. Ballistic stretching uses more of a bouncing or jerking type movement to increase the stretch. It is effective at increasing range of motion and it has the benefit of activating the muscle spindles and triggering the stretch reflex. Ballistic stretching has a bad reputation as it has been associated with injury but I don’t believe that it is the method that causes injury, I believe it is more likely poor execution.
Dynamic stretching is very similar to ballistic stretching in that it uses movement to increase the range of motion. You would see many sporting teams performing this type of stretching these days. The main difference between ballistic and dynamic stretching is that dynamic stretching uses controlled movements to increase range. An example of this would be leg swings. Using 5-8 sets of 8-12 reps gradually increasing range of motion is a typical type of stretch using this method. Dynamic stretching also activates the nervous system which is what you are looking for pre-workout / competition.
Here you can watch Dmitry Klokov performing a warm up before his workout:
You will notice he starts with some soft tissue work before moving into more ballistic and dynamic type movements. He would then move into his specific warm up with the bar, increasing weight quite quickly until he reached his working sets for the day.
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching is the most effective way to increase range of motion. It can be implemented in many different ways. A common method is the contract-relax, antagonist-contract method which is very good at increasing range of motion. You basically get a partner to assist you to a range that gives you a stretch, you then contract that muscle for 8 seconds, and once you relax your partner takes you into a greater stretch. You repeat this process 3 or 4 times and then on the final set you contract the antagonist muscle or you can try and hold that final position by yourself without the assistance of your partner for 15 seconds. It is important to note that the contraction does not need to be maximal. A contraction of roughly 25% has been shown to be enough to get the benefits from this method. PNF stretching is a good method to use pre-workout/competition as it also activates the sympathetic nervous system and it is also good to use when you need flexibility to perform a lift such as the snatch or even the full squat.
You may be thinking static stretching is useless at this point but it isn’t. It still has its place. I like to use static stretching 4-6 hours after a workout or game once the nervous system has had time to settle down and also like to use it at night to help calm down and relax. The reason I like to wait before stretching is that if you stretch immediately after a game/training session your muscles are engorged with blood and your CNS is fired up and you can’t get a good stretch.
To make the most out of your warm up or stretching routine I highly suggest getting screened by Gemma Smith and finding out what your limitation is. I used to stretch my hips chronically trying to reach full range in my squat, after being screened by Gemma she told me I had to work on my upper back. A week or two later I could reach full depth. Not only this I was spending 10 minutes working on my limitations not an hour.
*Gemma Smith is an Exercise Physiologist in the Camden, Campbelltown, and Macarthur area.