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For a Suppler Body and Fewer Injuries, Rethink How You Stretch

New research blows up everything you think you know about fitness and stretching.

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Gamma-Keystone/Getty,

by Sarah Mahoney

Well-Being
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Advice about stretching has seesawed wildly in the last few decades, but a new study goes a long way toward putting the most misunderstood part of your workout in perspective.

But first, a history lesson: Beginning in the early 1960s, almost everybody, from elite athletes to grade-school gym classes, got lectured about the health benefits of static stretching—stretching muscles when the body is at rest. (Studies showed it was safer and more effective than the calisthenic bouncing style of toe-touching that ruled in the 1950s.) By the early 1990s, a number of studies, many done on high-level athletes, turned that advice on its head. Instead, experts insisted, dynamic stretching—movements performed through large ranges of motion, often at a fast speed—was the best way to get ready for a workout. Static stretching, they said, made muscles less effective.

Now new research from Memorial University of Newfoundland, analyzing hundreds of studies collected over the decades, contradicts those findings. David Behm, Ph.D., lead author of the study, says the fitness world has been on hating on static stretching for all the wrong reasons.

“Many of these studies looked at prolonged stretching, and would end up with impairments of about 5 percent,” he says. “For an athlete like sprinter Usain Bolt, that’s huge. But for the average person, it makes no difference if, let’s say, your tennis serve is 5 percent slower.”

He also found that in studies that included a fullwarm-up before stretching, there was noimpairment in exercise performance.

The best results come from warming up before a workout, including stretches that are held between 30 and 60 seconds.

David Behm, Ph.D.

While top performance isn’t essential for the vast majority of casual exercisers, health is, and static stretching protects muscles and joints. “It reduces injuries,” he says. That’s vital for the average person in midlife trying to stay fit. “As we age, muscles have less viscosity and are less pliant, so our bodies aren’t as limber. Static stretching is more important.”

The best results, he says, come from warming up before a workout, including stretches that are held between 30 and 60 seconds. “But that might mean stretching your hamstrings, quadriceps and calves with three 20-second stretches, as well as dynamic moves, like swinging your legs from side to side. That will  decrease your rate of injury and increase your range of motion.”

Nor is there any reason to envy those flexible types who seem to be able to hold their stretches forever: Longer isn’t better. “The greatest improvements come from stretches held 30 to 60 seconds.”