Q&A: Is Static Stretching Good?

Mike –

I have a question I was hoping you could possibly answer on your blog.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about stretching and the various methods that can be used. While I’m still a big believer in static stretches I have slowly been becoming more familiar with stretches by Kelly Starrett and Pavel Tsatsouline, and am slowly finding myself questioning regular static stretches.

What are your thoughts on the more aggressive stretches by Kelly and Pavel as opposed to regular static stretches? Also, do you feel as though PNF stretching is better than static stretching?

First off, this is a fantastic question and hopefully I can answer it thoroughly enough via a blog post. I’ll do my best!

The first thing we need to do is remember that’s it not black-and-white; there aren’t good types of stretching and bad types of stretching.

Instead, we need to look a bit deeper, and we need to ask some tough questions.

What are my needs as an athlete?

What are my goals as an athlete?

What types of stretching will benefit me most?

What time should I incorporate said types of stretching?

Now you listed a few types of stretching, but I’m going to list a few more as well. At IFAST, we regularly incorporate the following types of stretches in our programming.

  • Static stretches,
  • Dynamic stretches, and
  • Eccentric Quasi-Isometric stretches

Let’s briefly discuss the pros and cons to each type of stretch, and then we can determine in what cases it might be found useful.

Examining the Types of Stretches

Let’s start by attempting to define the types of stretching you listed above, and then we’ll determine where they might be efficacious within a given program.

Static stretching is focused almost solely on the soft-tissues – muscles, tendons, ligaments, fasica and the joint capsule. You don’t have to balance or stabilize yourself, you just stretch.

Taking it a step further, having to balance or stabilize yourself is probably counterproductive! The goal is to be as relaxed as possible so you can work to deeply stretch the specific soft-tissues you’re targeting.

As there are minimal stability and/or balance requirements, static stretching is incredibly low-level and basic. The only goal is to increase tissue extensibility and/or stretch tolerance.

Without getting into semantics and a ridiculous research review, stretch tolerance is loosely defined as how far you can “stretch” a muscle before you feel it being stretched.

There’s a ton of conflicting research and reports when it comes to the benefits of static stretching. If you read Michael Alter’s Stretching textbook, he cites literature that the positive benefits of a static stretch may dissipate after as little as 6 minutes!

Now contrast that with someone like Ann Fredrick’s who has obviously had success with static stretching in her Stretch to Win system. She cites research that the joint capsule and restrictions in that area are responsible for up to 47% of your capacity to stretch alone!

I think there’s definitely a role for static stretching in many people’s programs. However, static stretching may not be the best way to develop improvements in tissue length.

Now many would say you shouldn’t static stretch because it doesn’t include the nervous system. After all, the nervous system drives movement, so why would you stretch without it?

And I have an answer to that below; but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here!

Dynamic stretching is similar to static in the fact that you’re still working to stretch a specific muscle group, but it incorporates elements of postural control, stability and/or balance.

Here’s a good example.

  1. With your right hand resting on a wall, you use your left hand to pull your left heel to your buttock. You hold this position for 30-60 seconds (static stretch).
  2. You take a step forward with your right leg, use your left hand to pull your heel to your buttock, and then release and perform on the opposite side (dynamic stretch).

As you can see, the first example minimizes stability, balance and control, while prolonging the stretched position.

In contrast, the second example empahsizes stability, balance and control, while minimizing the hold in the stretched position.

While this type of stretching may not be suitable for big-time increases in tissue extensibility, it is definitely superior with regards to including the nervous system.

The issue with dynamic stretches is that we start to incorporate more “stuff” into the mix.

If they can’t effectively perform these types of stretches, is it a tissue extensibility problem?

Or is it a stability problem in the opposite foot, hip, or core?

Or both?

And the above example uses an extremely basic example of a heel-to-butt stretch!

Consider instead a more global movement like an overhead squat. If someone can’t overhead squat correctly, now you’re examining a whole host of factors:

  • Ankle mobility,
  • Hip mobility,
  • Thoracic spine mobility,
  • Gleno-humeral joint mobility,
  • Relative stiffness between the trunk and hips,
  • Etc.

It’s not a bad thing, it’s just something we need to be aware of.

Eccentric quasi-isometrics (or EQI’s), are the final type of stretching we use at IFAST. This combines some of the elements of static stretching (camping out in one position and holding), and some of the elements of dynamic stretching (nervous system recruitment, balance, stability, etc.)

In this case, you might set-up in the bottom of a split-squat, with your trailing leg knee just off the floor.

From here, you’d think about getting tall and tight (to recruit the external obliques), while squeezing the gluteal on the trailing leg butt cheek.

You hold this position for anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.

And if you don’t know how to perform a split-squat correctly, the video below should help:

Again, without getting into a full-on literature review here, I’d highly recommend reading Tony Schwartz’s review of EQI’s in Christian Thibadeau’s Theory and Application of Modern Strength and Power Methods. I also wrote a blog post about EQI’s here.

So now that we have an idea of the types of stretches we have available, it’s not so much which one IS BEST, but who should perform specific types of stretches, and when should they perform them?

WHO Should Perform Each Kind of Stretch?

Now we start to get a bit more specific with our answers.

Static stretching is often vilified, and wrongly so.

It’s not that static stretching is bad – it’s that most people either:

  1. Stretch the wrong muscles, or
  2. Don’t need static stretching in the first place!

With regards to example #1, consider the person who has “tight hamstrings” because they’re in a ridiculous anterior tilt.

I hate to tell them, but static stretching those hammies might feel good for a few minutes, but it’s stretching an already lengthened muscle and reinforcing poor posture and lumbo-pelvic stability!

(If that last paragraph just lost you, I’d highly recommend reading this article.)

Another example would be people who insist on getting a lot of range of motion around their lumbar spine. Flexing and extending that spine into a fine powder isn’t doing you any good.

The other side of the coin are people who really have no significant “flexibility” deficits and stretch simply to stretch.

A great example (and I know I will piss some people off when I say this) are people who are obsessed with yoga. They become flexible to a point where they are unstable – they can no longer control their muscles through an extreme range of motion.

Ever wonder why ballet dancers and figure skaters have so much back pain?

This position looks super cool – but if you don’t have the stability to control your body in this position, you do more harm than good.

The people who will benefit the most from static stretching are those with a very low stretch tolerance, and/or people with very poor tissue extensibility.

Think about some of the big powerlifters who have never stretched a day in their lives. These guys don’t need the tissue extensibility of a ballet dancer or yogi, but they need enough to keep themselves healthy and able to train.

On the other hand, many women who are just interested in being “fit” don’t need a big-time static stretching program in their routine. They would often benefit more from dynamic stretching.

In fact, I would argue that most people can benefit from including dynamic stretching in their programming. I think it does a fantastic job of blending tissue extensibility, balance, postural control, and stability.

The issue here is can you (or your client) effectively stretch in this manner?

Remember, there are a lot of factors that determine if this is a good type of stretch for you. If you have stability, balance or motor control issues, etc., you may need to find ways to regress these stretches, at least initially.

Finally, people with clinically short muscles, or specific limitations in relative flexibility, will benefit the most from EQI’s.

If we go back to our split-squat example, holding that position will not only increase length in the hip flexors, but will also improve recruitment and strength in the external 0bliques and gluteals.

The biggest issue here is making sure you’re doing them correctly.

It’s not enough to just hold longer and longer each time; instead, focus on maintaining optimal alignment and terminating the set when you fall back into your preferred (and faulty!) stabilization pattern.

WHEN Should You Incorporate Each Kind of Stretch?

This is perhaps the most important question – not only is it important that we choose the right type of stretch, but we also need to perform the right stretch at the right time.

For example, I love dynamic stretching – but doing it before bed isn’t a great idea. Who wants to be fired up and neurally primed right before bed?

Don’t answer that 🙂

Or imagine an elite athlete getting ready to hit the field – do they want to static stretch (and calm their nervous system and relax their muscles) right before they go out and sprint, run or cut explosively?

Here’s a general framework of when you should use each type of stretch:

  • Use static stretches immediately before bed. This will not only help you relax but calm the nervous system and promotes better sleep.  One exception could be to use static stretching before lifting sessions if the primary focus of your session/training block is improving mobility, or if you need to increase extensibility in a specific muscle group (i.e. the hip flexors).
  • Use dynamic stretches pre-workout, or as part of a mobility circuit throughout the day.
  • Use EQI’s immediately post-workout, and only on muscle groups or areas that have been found to be short or too stiff in relation to adjacent segments.

Summary

As usual, this got a little bit out of control, but I hope it gives you a better idea of what benefits there are to the various types of stretches, as well as who should use them and when they should use them.

And remember, this is just a blog post on the topic! I didn’t even really get to cover mobility, how foam rolling and other soft-tissue techniques influence flexibility/mobility, etc. Maybe this should be a webinar or something!

Regardless, if I didn’t answer a specific question, throw it in the “Comments” section below and I’ll do my best to help. Thanks!

MR

P.S. – if you enjoyed this post, help a brotha out by e-mailing it to a friend, sharing it on Facebook, or simply re-tweeting it to you people on Twitter. I’d appreciate it!

39 Comments

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  1. Hey mike! A huge ‘thank you’ for taking the time to put all the great free content out that you do! Quick question about what’s the best approach to stretching for the average person who sits for long hours. along with being more aware of there postural habits (getting up and moving around regularly, changing their posture frequently etc), what type of stretching for facilitated muscles such as rectus femoris, pectorals, SCMastoid do you prefer? (how long to hold each stretch for, how often etc). One of the things i and my clients find challenging is trying to correct all of the sitting that we do as humans. thangs again mike 🙂

    • Loaded question here, but I’ll use a mix of static, dynamic, soft-tissue work etc for the rectus femoris and pecs.

      For SCM, a lot of times that’s associated to poor breathing, so I’d check that before I’d stretch the neck.

      And really, you always have to ask – WHY is this tight? Sometimes a lack of stability elsewhere is driving “tension” in the affected muscle.

  2. Hi Mike!

    Very good explanation. Really an eye opening article.

    I just received your DVD’s – MM, BKNBP, I/O, A/C. The video that demonstrated in your DVD’s are mostly dynamic stretches right?

    Where can I learn more about EQI? (New topic to me)

    Cheers Mike

    P.S: Your DVD’s are great… Keep it up!

    • Thanks Bryan!

      For EQI’s, again, check out the book above. I’ll poke around – I think either Verkoshansky or some of the other Russian/Eastern Block authors discussed it as well.

  3. Hey Mike,

    Some train after a long day of sitting at school or at work which obviously leads to tight hip flexors. Static stretching the hip flexors for a good minute or so on each side pre-workout to loosen them up is fine right? This would of course be followed by dynamic mobility work.

    • In all honesty it’s been so long since I read that book I can’t give you an opinion. I’ll try to dig it out and get back to you on this.

  4. Thanks for a great Article! This question might be somewhat off topic, but I’ll give it a go and ask it anyway. Regarding extreme feats of flexibility such as high level yoga, in your opinion, is it possible NOT to experience joint-issues when performing these kinds of movements for a long time? (thinking of the picture of the girl skating in your article). Thanks!

    • It’s possible, but remember, it all comes down to stability – being able to CONTROL you mobility within that extreme range of motion.

      If you can’t, then yes, I feel like you’re going to have wear-and-tear issues.

  5. Hi Mike,

    Great post.

    Question, how can you distinguish neural tension in the hamstrings or similar. I know I have a tight RF, and I have been getting assessed by a reputable therapist. He has me stretching Hams as well as RF and hip flexors. Is it possible for both to need stretching? I am curious as to your thoughts.
    Thanks

    • I would say it’s rare that you need to stretch both sides of the joint, unless your tissue extensibility is just poor in general.

  6. Hey Mike, it’s Zafreen from London, UK! Loving your posts. I have a question. My trainer is a RTS specialist and MAT master, and he doesn’t stretch at all and neither corporates it in my training. I was a dancer so …back and knee pain…also I had two babies in two consecutive years. My body was in a bit of a mess. But now i get no back nor knee pain, no tightness and don’t feel like stretching either. Just wanted your views on MAT. Thank you and bye from a miserable weather, London!!

    • Zafreen – Keep in mind if you already have adequate mobility, you may not need dedicated stretching/flexibility work in your program. I would assume you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum – more in need of stability and strengthening work than anything else.

      MR

  7. Mike
    Looking forward to hearing you speak at the IYCA summit again.I am constantly having a discussion here where I live about the proper way to prepare kids ages 10-14 for youth football,coaches have the kids jogging around the field for conditioning,the have them leaning against a wall for strength these are some examples.I have a problem with these because number one we are playing a sport with plays lasting 4-7 seconds and jogging far and slow I believe is preparing the athletes energy system wrong,the wall leans I believe take away what kids need to develop like stability,coordination,balance.I wanted to ask your opinion because you might have run into the old school mentality and can give me additional support to help change the way they are training .I asked the coach why he does these drills he told me the navy seals do them,but my response was what were the navy seals doing when they were 12 yrs. old not what they are doing now.Looking forward to your response.

    Thanks
    Dave Minnig

    • Dave – This doesn’t really pertain to the above article, but I would recommend picking up a copy of Joel Jamieson’s “Ultimate MMA Conditioning” book. He outlines all the various energy systems and how to train them appropriately in there.

      But yeah, running “laps” or “gassers” for field/court sports is typically pretty dumb 🙂

    • Sorry Mike I thought the question was sent as an email to you.The article also helped because the football team does static stretching first not dynamic which is also something I would like to see change.

    • That’s not quite what I said.

      Pre-workout it may not be optimal, sure.

      BUT, if that person lacks normal/typical range of motion, and static stretching can help them do that, then it can absolutely improve performance.

      And that’s without even discussing the concept of injury prevention.

      It all comes down to looking at things within their unique context, not blindly using black and white statements.

  8. Hi Mike,

    Great article, as usual. Just wondering if you have any easy to assess standards for when an athlete has attained ‘normal’ flexibility levels sufficient to move on to predominantly dynamic stretching?

    Thanks in advance!

  9. Hi.

    Any help would be appreciated. I have had an injury in my lower right side of my back and glute (where the pain is exactly varies from day to day). I picked this up bowling in cricket. This injury has been with me for around two years now. The stiffness and aching pain is drastically reduced when I go for a jog or do some dynamic stretching or a core workout but this is always temporary and any time I relax for a bit, the area stiffens and aches. Do you recommend continuing with the core work and could you recommend a supplementary dynamic hip mobility program to use (I just have taken a couple exercises off the internet, atm)? I am currently using these static stretches at night and have found some success with hip flexor stretching though nothing long term yet…

    I had an MRI but it came out clean. I hope this assures you that it is a minor problem and so you will not hesitate in giving advice.

    Thanks.

  10. If I can chime in… Side splits! Over time, you’ll sink into it more. Make sure you can stabilize yourself with a pole or table in the beginning.

  11. Just a quick question, a lot of people say static stretching decreases power, is this only short term, or is it long term. Does it recover after you havent stretched for a few hours or does your power get worse and worse as you keep static stretching before bed?
    Also, does static stretching increase muscle length?

  12. Is it static streching good after extremely hard training..when is muscle already very tired, is it good to strech it in that case?

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