The stretches you’ve been doing since high school probably aren’t doing the job.
Stretching seems like a pretty straight-forward issue: Just do it before a workout and you’re good to go, right? Wrong, says Reg Wilcox, a physical therapist and clinical supervisor of the Department of Rehabilitation Services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. New research is constantly emerging, Wilcox explains, that says the stretching you’ve been doing since high school may not only be ineffective, but actually negatively affecting your performance.
“There’s a growing body of data, some of which was just reported [recently], that shows that you can actually have a reduction in your strength and power and your injury rate can be a little higher if you’re doing a lot of static stretching on cold muscles,” he says. Though stationary static stretching is important if specific muscles are especially tight or were previously injured, Wilcox explains that cold stretching doesn’t allow for increased blood flow to the tendons, a key component in preventing injury.
Instead of doing traditional static stretches, Wilcox says to do a dynamic warmup that combines cardio with readying muscles for activity, like jogging, lunges, high knee marching, and side stepping. He also recommends checking out the FIFA 11+ series for good dynamic warmup ideas. “The shift has really been to do a dynamic, sport-specific warmup for a good 10 to 15 to 18 minutes or so, then stretch areas where you feel that you’re tight or you may be vulnerable to injury and then get right into your sport or activity,” Wilcox says.
And, Wilcox says, everyone from elite athletes to the most casual of gym goers can benefit from dynamic warmups. “[It's] important for everybody, [but] more important and more dynamic for people that are going to be competing or exercising at a higher level or have a higher expectation,” he stresses. Even kids playing youth sports should move beyond simple static stretching, Wilcox says. “There needs to be more of this information out there so kids are protected and warmed up appropriately before they compete,” he says, “because as a physical therapist I’m seeing youth injuries just rise and rise and rise compared to 20 years ago.”
So next time you hit the gym, make sure you give your warmup routine some love first. Hey, who knows— maybe you’ll even burn a few extra calories.