When the lights went out during Sunday’s Superbowl, millions of television viewers watched players for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers try to “stay loose” by stretching their muscles on the field.
The problem: A growing body of sports research indicates static stretching does nothing to keep muscles from tightening up and may even promote it — ultimately hurting athletic performance.
“I was surprised seeing players emphasizing static stretching during the Super Bowl electrical outage,” said noted fitness expert Gary Sforzo, a professor with the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at Ithaca College. “There is substantial evidence proving that static stretching impairs subsequent performance requiring a high power component (think sprinting, jumping) such as displayed on every down in a football game.”
Sforzo told Newsmax the best thing athletes can do to prepare for competition and not tighten up during breaks is to keep their muscles warm and flexible by remaining active. But even no activity is better than stretching for priming athletic performance, he added.
"Avoiding static stretching is the key," he said. "Another much better option is maintain an elevated muscle temperature via continuous light exercise (cycling, jogging, walking) — even in a Superdome! Since static stretching can impair subsequent high power efforts simply sitting on the bench is a better alternative but not as good as staying warm and doing some dynamic work."
Sforzo — who has published research on maximizing exercise programs in the Journal of Sports Medicine and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research — isn’t alone in his views on stretching and athletic performance.
New exercise guidelines issued by the American College of Sports Medicine advise against stretching before workouts or competitions. The European College of Sport Sciences has also issued a position statement saying that such stretching could "diminish" athletic performance.
Many studies that have emerged in the past decade have challenged the benefits of static stretching — such as when an athlete reaches toward his or her toes to elongate the hamstrings, then holds that pose until it becomes uncomfortable. The technique was promoted in schools and sports programs for decades, on the belief that it lengthened muscles and increased flexibility. But new research has found athletes who did static stretches often had poorer performance, couldn't run as fast, or jump as high as before stretching.
Ironically perhaps, some research has found stretching triggers the nervous system to react and tighten, not loosen, muscles.
As a result, many fitness experts recommend that coaches limit stretching duration as part of a warmup in most sports and refrain from stretching altogether before games. Instead, athletes should perform a whole-body warm-up activity followed by sport specific, or dynamic, exercises.
In light of the new evidence of the downsides of static stretching, Sforzo said it was troubling to watch the Ravens and 49ers on Superbowl Sunday, for reasons that had nothing to do with the outcome of the game.
“Sort of shocking that ‘all the right things’ are not done at this level of performance,” he said.
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