Warm Ups, No Stretch of the Imagination
Between static stretching, dynamic warm up, ballistic stretching, yoga, and PNF stretching the sheer number of warm up options can be bewildering. Yet most research over the past five years points to the same conclusion: before a work out do five or ten minutes of simple warm up exercises, and as for stretching keep it to a bare minimum.
This reaction against static stretching began twelve years ago with a study showing static stretching actually hurts performance, strength and may even tighten muscles. On the other hand this initial finding was questioned by later studies which found stretches held for under 30 seconds had no such down sides. The bulk of recent research confirmed an absence of any clear benefits from stretching outside of flexibility focused sports such as gymnastics.
Yet stretching may yet be redeemed, some experts such as Anthony Kay of the University of Northampton suggest brief stretches improve your range of motion and help protect against stiffness. Duane Knudson of Texas State University comments that a basic level of flexibility is needed for high performing athletes. Similarly NPR reports suddenly stopping stretching often leads to injury.
One caveat in recent findings lies in the fact that few researchers separated stretching from dynamic warm ups. New York Times writer Gina Kolata remarks warm ups in these studies may have cancelled out the negative side effects of stretching. Moreover warm ups actually go beyond balancing out the down sides of stretching; they help prepare for more intense exertion.
Another NYT writer, Gretchen Reynolds, found the key to warming up is to physically bring up your temperature with five or ten minutes of light exercise.
M-A athletes, junior Zoe Pacalin and senior George Baier, revealed that M-A students are ahead of the curve. Both athletes reported favoring short stretches held for under 30 seconds and Baier added the track team makes sure to do two warm up laps before stretching.
Overall, modern experts agree painful and unnatural routines of minute long stretches are harmful while the often pleasant and easy practice of short stretches and warm ups can only help. Although exercise research seems to do an about face every ten years this focus on natural, basic movements — as enjoyed by the lion or yoga and taiji practitioners — remains effective and timeless.
As opposed to the regimented, pseudo-scientific and often painful stretching advocated by some previous generations, warm ups and short stretches have been validated by millennia of practice. On a philosophical level Nassim Taleb’s theory of antifragility supports this warm up and simple movement approach to stretching while on a more basic level: why hold an unpleasant, unattractive pose for extended periods of time when you could just jog for a few minutes?