Stretching or strengthening- what should you do?

September 3, 2017

In summary

  • Strength training is superior to static stretching for injury prevention, rehabilitation and sporting performance.
  • Stretching can improve flexibility which may be important for your chosen sport or activity.
  • To increase your flexibility, incorporate twice daily stretches of 4 x 30 second holds for a minimum of 3 weeks.
  • If you stretch, do not perform stretches of more than 60 seconds immediately prior to competition or training that requires maximal output of muscle force. We recommend performing an active warm-up and saving stretches for recovery.


The details

In the clinic, we are often asked by clients about a range of issues in relation to stretching including whether to stretch an injured body part, whether staying more flexible will prevent injuries or whether stretching is in fact detrimental.


So, we decided to explore the issue in a little more detail and share some of those findings with you and hopefully clarify what is often a very murky topic.


The research is now clear that using static stretches (meaning prolonged holds of 30 seconds to 2 minutes) as part of a warm-up does not reduce your chances of injury (see here) and may be detrimental to your performance. Stretching immediately prior to exercise has been shown to reduce peak muscle power and force output (see for example here, here, here and here). However, a review of the literature concluded that only static stretches that involved holds of longer than 60 seconds had any detrimental effect on muscle force and power (read the review here). So, static stretches do not reduce your chance of injury but if you want to include stretches as part of your warm-up, make sure you hold them for less than a minute.


Performing stretching can result in increased flexibility over the long term. This was thought to be because the nervous system allows the muscle to stretch further. The work of Magnusson (here) showed that hamstring stretching would result in an increase in range of motion but no change in the stiffness of the muscle, concluding that the changes were due to increases in the hamstrings’ ability to tolerate stretch rather than actual structural changes to the muscle. However more recently, some high-quality studies have demonstrated that long term stretching (at least 3 weeks) results in muscle facicle growth and whole muscle lengthening during stretching (see here and here).


So, we know that longer-term stretching programs can result in an increase in range of motion due to increases in stretch tolerance as well as changes in the qualities of the muscle. If your sport or activity requires a large range of motion, and especially if you have difficulty moving into some of those positions, then stretching can be a beneficial part of your program. Based on these studies, to increase your flexibility you should look to incorporate twice daily stretches of 4 x 30 second holds for a minimum of 3 weeks.


For injury prevention, if it comes down to a choice between stretching and strengthening, the evidence is clearly in favour of strength training. The most comprehensive of these studies comes from Lauersen et al (here) who conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of 26,600 subjects and concluded that strength training was highly significant in preventing injuries, whilst stretching alone did not show any protective effect.


Strength training is also very effective at reducing pain, improving function and quality of life in people with chronic musculoskeletal pain (see for example here and here) as well as tendinopathies and plantar fascia pain(see here). Strength training twice per week has also been shown to improve runners 5 km run time compared to those that didn’t perform any strength training (see here). We recommend our athletes put time into a regular strength training programs rather than prioritising stretching and rolling on foam rollers.


The evidence is comprehensively in favour of strengthening being far superior to stretching alone for injury prevention, rehabilitation and sporting performance. However, it’s important to note stretching does not have a detrimental effect (so long as it isn’t done immediately prior to activities requiring strength and power for maximum performance). We all know how good it can feel to have a good stretch on our recovery days! Furthermore mobility, that is the ability to control your body into positions requiring flexibility, is important for many activities and sports (think dancing or even a deep squat) so a structured stretching program can be an important part of an overall strength and conditioning program.


We will be posting a series of strengthening and stretching exercises up on our social media so don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and Facebook. Hopefully this has clarified some of the latest information about stretching and strengthening. Please note we have not explored dynamic stretching which could take up another whole blog post. If you have any queries about this post, please feel free to get in contact and of course we are always happy to help devise specific strength and conditioning programs to help you achieve your goals, here at Caloundra Sportscare.