Static Stretching to Improve Performance by Chris Graham

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[Chris is currently pursuing his Master’s in Kinesiology from UT Tyler while working as a Strength and Conditioning Coach in Houston, TX. He is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA and has completed the Athletic Lab coaching mentorship program. You can find him on Twitter.]

It’s a well known fact that static stretching decreases performance, this is why we don’t plan long stretching routines for warm-ups. But with much of the research attention focused on static stretching of the agonist musculature there has not been much attention to look at the effects of antagonistic stretching may have on performance, and how this may be a key component to increase power and training volume.

This thought of antagonist stretching was first introduced to me when I read a blog from Joe De Franco on dirty tricks to improve your vertical jump. Since this time I’ve played around with the method and have had success in adding a few inches to my vertical jump, albeit it was measured with chalk, a wall, and a yardstick (so reliability may be an issue) but I’ve never used antagonist stretching as part of a training program, rather more of “why not try it and see what happens” when testing time approached. Since then I’ve heard of other coaches using this practice as well but I’ve never seen research to explain the mechanisms behind this or if it actually improves performance at all.

Currently there are very few studies that look at the training effects of antagonist muscle stretching on performance. Sandberg et al. (2012) found that after stretching the hamstrings there was a 9% increase in knee extension torque and also there was a 2% increase in vertical jump height and 1% increase in vertical jump power after stretching the hip flexors and dorsiflexors prior to testing. While these are small increases in jump height/power I think the stretching protocol (contracting the glute while in a half kneel hip flexor stretch) may have had a negative effect on jumping performance. Within this study, the total effect that stretching may have on someone may be related to overall flexibility as some subjects had positive increases, over 30% in knee extension torque, while others either had no or a negative effect on performance. So if the case is that positive performances are related to flexibility, what would the long term use of this strategy then become? Would performance decrease as the athlete gained more flexibility in their antagonist musculature, or do the effects continue to be present due to alterations in the length-tension relationship of the stretched musculature?

In another study, Miranda et al. (2015) found that total work volume increased in a seated row exercise when each set was preceded by antagonistic stretching of the pectoralis major musculature. They also found that activation of the latissimus dorsi increased each set and was significantly different when compared to passive rest between sets. Based on this information it would be plausible to think that we can use antagonistic stretching as a means to increase total training volume when necessary. Also, this increase in muscle activation may prove to be beneficial, especially when using power oriented training, as muscle torque increases to a greater extent during fast movements compared to slower versions of the same exercise (Sandberg, 2012). A thought that comes to mind with increasing the training volume and accumulating more reps per session is how this would impact the velocity of each rep…in that would this allow an athlete to maintain bar speed in a certain exercise for longer, i.e. staying within certain speed parameters for a back squat (0.75-0.65 m/s) or would they fall out of the velocity range at the same point had they not stretched antagonist musculature, and just take longer to hit their failure speed. This distinction could be the deciding factor to determine whether this method should be used for strength and power training and it’s overall impact on a long term training plan.

In each of these studies the antagonist stretching would take place immediately before performing a set, with each study having a different stretching protocol, either through the number of stretches done, or how long the muscles were stretched. This begs the question as to whether different stretching protocols are better for improving performance over others, and whether it’s necessary to stretch before each working set. It’s been shown that the effects of static stretching on muscle force can last up to two hours (Power, 2004) and it’s well established that different total stretching times have different effects on performance (Behm, 2015). By looking at how static stretching effects agonist performance we can conclude that it would be beneficial to stretch agonist musculature for at least 30 seconds and the effects on performance may become larger the greater the total time of stretching that is done. Another thing to keep in mind with the use of this method is placement in the daily plan, if used it should be done to get the biggest bang for your buck, but you also shouldn’t stretch muscles you plan on training later in the session as this will have a negative impact on performance.

With all of this said, there is evidence to support the use of antagonistic muscle stretching for improving power and total work load. However the extent of the improvements, the mechanisms behind it, and whether it will have a meaningful impact in long term planning has yet to be determined. While there are different mechanisms proposed such as alterations in the length-tension relationship, increased/decreased activity of the agonist and antagonist muscles, there currently isn’t enough evidence to suggest what the cause for this effect on performance is. At this point there are many more questions than answers, as it’s been largely unstudied in the literature, but that’s no reason to avoid the practice altogether. Further research should also be done with more advanced athletes and see how this practice may impact more highly trained athletes. With improvements in sports technology and access to it becoming easier, looking at how this practice may impact performance will get easier to see in real time so we can better evaluate how this method of antagonistic muscle stretching may affect an athlete’s performance in the short and long term. If you’ve used this before and have experience with it, then let me know how it worked for you in the comments below.

References

Behm, D.G., Blazevich, A.J., Kay, A.D., McHugh, M. (2015). Acute Effects of Muscle Stretching on Physical Performance, Range of Motion, and Injury Incidence in Healthy Active Individuals: a systematic review. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41, 1-11https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2015-0235

Miranda, H., Maia Mde, F., Paz, G.A., Costa, P.B., (2015). Acute Effects of Antagonist Static Stretching in the Inter-Set Rest Period on Repetition Performance and Muscle Activation. Research in Sports Medicine, 23(1), 37-50. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15438627.2014.975812

Power, K., Behm, D.G., Cahill, F., Carroll, M., Young, W., (2004). An Acute Bout of Static Stretching: Effects on Force and Jumping Performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 36(8),1389-1396. DOI: 10.1249/01.MSS.0000135775.51937.53

Sandberg, J.B., Wagner, D.R., Willardson, J.M., Smith, G.A. (2012). Acute Effects of Antagonist Stretching on Jump Height, Torque, and Electromyography of Agonist Musculature. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Journal, 26 (5), 1249-1256. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f2399

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