Stretching for Success

The easiest way to increase athletic performance: Stretching!

Derek Jeter working on hamstring flexibility


Stretching is an often overlooked aspect of any training routine. It doesn’t take much to convince an athlete that a regular training regimen will be beneficial to their overall performance, but convincing one that stretching can provide benefits as well is not so easy. As a population we are in a constant state of go, and do not want to take the time pre and post workouts to properly take care of our bodies. Stretching generally only comes to mind after an injury, or when prescribed to alleviate pain. I was a victim of that train of thought, it took a bad hamstring strain during my sophomore year of college for me to realize how important stretching is. Stretching before competition, practices, or workouts will prepare our body for the demanding tasks ahead, while stretching after can be used to reduce stiffness, soreness, and increase our range of motion (ROM; the degree of movement that occurs at a joint). There are two main types of stretching, dynamic stretching and static stretching. In the past, static stretching was used prior to competitions or practices as a warm up. Recently, however, it has become common practice to use dynamic stretching as a warm up, while saving static stretching for a cool down or as its own designed program.

   Dynamic Stretching

When used properly as a warm up, dynamic stretching provides many benefits. Dynamic stretching is based on functional movement patterns related to the sport or action that is to follow. For example, a walking knee lift stretch follows the movement pattern of an athlete driving their knee up during a sprint. This places emphasis on the movement requirements of the activity rather than focusing on one individual muscle group. Many joints can be incorporated into a single movement, which makes dynamic stretching time efficient. Along with increasing active ROM and efficiency, dynamic stretching will increase muscle and core temperature, blood flow, oxygen delivery, and decrease the viscosity of joint fluids. A dynamic warm up should increase gradually in its intensity so as not to use up energy stores or cause unnecessary fatigue. As an athlete develops and experiments with warm up routines they will find one that puts them in the right physical and mental state for a competition, workout, or practice.

Static Stretching

Static stretching is being phased out of most sports warm up routines, but is still vital to any athlete. Static stretching is a slow and constant stretch that is held for a period of time. There is debate in the literature on exactly how long to hold a static stretch, but most athletes find success in holding the stretch for approximately 20-30 seconds. It is important to hold the stretch at a position of mild discomfort and not pain, as the goal of static stretching is to relax and elongate the stretched muscle. Static stretching works to increase ROM around particular joints such as the ball and socket joint of the hip and shoulder or the hinge joint of the knee. Flexibility in these regions helps for a more fluid movement pattern when performing basic activities, such as a squat. More complex movement patterns than the squat occur every second on a playing field, and being able to fluidly run, cut, stop, or jump will reduce wear and tear, increase athletic capabilities, and ultimately provide athletic advantages. More research needs to be done on the frequency, duration, and intensity of stretching but as little as 2 days per week for a minimum of five weeks has been shown to significantly increase flexibility. For optimal benefits, static stretching should be performed when muscle temperatures are warm, such as immediately after practice or a workout. The increased temperature allows for greater elastic properties of the muscles and surrounding connective tissue, allowing for a deeper stretch to be achieved. Static stretching can also be used as a separate session, as long as a warm up is performed to adequately increase muscle temperatures.

Baechle, T. R. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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