Static stretching is a type of stretch where you hold the lengthening position of a joint and muscle for a period of time. Many of us were taught to stretch like this before we run, lift weights, or play a sport, probably since middle school.
While we have followed the ritual of stretching for many years, scientific research in the past decades has informed us that static stretching doesn’t really work the way we think it does.
Types of static stretching
Static stretching comes in two primary flavors: passive and active.
For example, you can stretch your chest by placing your forearms against a doorway while standing and lean your body forward to stretch. Another way is to stand and bend forward to touch your toes, letting gravity to help you increase the stretch.
In active stretching, you contract the muscle group that is the opposite of the muscles that you are stretching. For example, if you’re stretching your hamstrings, you tense your quadriceps for a short period of time, then relax, and then tense again.
There’s very little research to determine which type is better for improving range of motion or athletic performance, but one Brazilian study in 2011 found that there’s not much difference in hamstring flexibility between passive and active stretching among a group of 60 men. Both groups have similar gains in range of motion compared to the control group that did no stretching.
What’s the difference between static and dynamic stretching?
Static stretching is where you hold a stretch for a period of time, like about 30 seconds, while dynamic stretching is involves moving one or more joints repetitively through a range of motion. Don’t confuse dynamic stretching with ballistic stretching because the latter moving the joint in a fast, repetitive manner. It uses mostly momentum rather than control.
While dynamic stretching is often used before you exercise, there’s some scientific evidence that shows static stretching can help relax your mind and body, such as reducing the risk of getting leg cramps among older adults. When combined with moderate exercise, static stretching “may improve sleep quality in sedentary, overweight, postmenopausal women,” according to one Dutch study in 2003.
Should you do static stretching before you exercise?
Some research finds that dynamic stretching is a better option than static stretching for warming up because it prepares your brain and muscles to perform the movement patterns for your sport or activity. One 2008 systematic review finds that static stretching does not prevent overall injuries, but there are some studies that say it may prevent some muscle and tendon injuries.
The studies that said there is no reduction in overall injury rates included non-muscle and joint injuries, such as bone fractures and blood vessel injuries, which static stretching couldn’t have prevented.
A 2019 narrative review found that how long you stretch may have little to no effect to injury prevention and decreasing performance. The authors summarized that static stretching for less than 60 seconds has “trivial negative effects” on strength and power right after the stretching.
When static stretching is combined with dynamic warm-ups, it may even lower the risk of certain types of injuries, depending on the activity that you play (e.g. marathons vs. 100-meter sprint, tae kwon do vs. wrestling). They recommended that static stretch should be “part of a warm-up component in recreational sports due to its potentially positive effect on flexibility and musculotendinous injury prevention.”
However, for “high-performance” athletes, like American football players, they should take extra precautions with static stretching since it may likely reduce the power output.
If static stretching feels good and relaxes you, then there is likely no reason to not do it. However, if you are recovering from an injury and are just getting back to getting stronger, faster, etc., consult with a physical therapist or an exercise profession who is updated to the current research behind movement and stretching.
Here are common stretches you could do that target major muscles groups.
Static stretching exercises
The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that you should hold a static stretch for 15 to 30 seconds to the point of mild discomfort. You probably need to do this no more than three or four sets because there’s very little gain to more stretching.
But some researchers suggest that stretching isn’t even necessary to improve your flexibility. Recently, a team of Portuguese researchers reviewed 11 studies with a total of 452 subjects found that both strength training and stretching work just as well in increasing flexibility.
They concluded that strength training and stretching “were not statistically different in [range of motion] improvements” in the short term. In other words, you can get similar benefits from strength training as stretching.
But if you enjoy stretching as a way to relax or meditate, there may be no problem in doing so.
Standing toe touch
This stretching not only stretches your hamstrings and calves but also your lower back and glutes. You can do this with your legs together or apart. As you stretch, do not bounces or bob your upper body as you reach toward the ground. Take steady, deep breaths as you hold the stretch. You may also use a half foam roll to increase the stretch in your calves.
Standing quadriceps stretch
Stand and bend your right knee and hold the stretch at your right ankle or foot with your right hand. Hold onto a sturdy surface, such as a wall or table as you hold the stretch. You may add a slight hip extension to increase the stretch if needed.
Lat stretch with stability ball
Kneel on both knees with a stability ball in front of you. Place both hands in a karate chop position on top of the ball. As you shift your weight toward your buttocks and lower your hips toward your heels, push the ball forward by extending your arms. Relax your body as you hold the stretch.
3-D neck stretch
This stretch focuses on the sternocleidomastoid, levator scapulae, upper trapezius, scalenes, and other muscles of the neck and upper shoulders.
- Tilt your head to your left while extending your right arm to your right side with your right palm facing up. Hold the stretch and repeat it on the other side.
- Tilt your head to your left and then tilt your tilt chin down toward your left chest. Hold the stretch and repeat it on the other side.
- Tilt your head to your left and then tilt your chin up until you feel a stretch in the right front part of your neck. Hold the stretch and repeat it on the other side.
Splits adductor stretch
While this stretch may look like something out of a hyperbolic stretching ad, this may help you get closer to doing the splits, even if you are nowhere near the level of a gymnast.
Sit on the floor with your legs spread as wide as you can like you are doing the splits. With your right foot flexed toward your face, lean your torso forward as you reach with your arms forward until you feel a stretch in your adductors.
There are also various ways to stretch your adductors as shown here:
Lay prone on the floor with your hands by beneath your shoulders like you are going to do a push-up. Lift your chest off the floor and push up with your arms. Tilt your head back to increase the stretch in the front of your neck. You should feel a stretch in your abdominal region. Take deep, steady breaths as you hold the stretch.
Despite decades of research, there’s still a lot about stretching that we don’t know much about, such as the physiology of stretching and its psychological effects that may contribute to performance and pain. Perhaps static stretching isn’t really as important as what we were taught, and strength training is a better alternative for many people.
A native of San Diego for nearly 40 years, Nick Ng is an editor of Massage & Fitness Magazine, an online publication for manual therapists and the public who want to explore the science behind touch, pain, and exercise, and how to apply that in their hands-on practice or daily lives.
An alumni from San Diego State University with a B.A. in Graphic Communications, Nick also completed his massage therapy training at International Professional School of Bodywork in San Diego in 2014.
When he is not writing or reading, you would likely find him weightlifting at the gym, salsa dancing, or exploring new areas to walk and eat around Southern California.