For those who go through an extensive stretch regimen, thoroughly limbering up before grabbing any weight, this compelling research may come as a shock: pre-exercise stretching may not be as beneficial as you think.
To Stretch or Not To Stretch?
While stretching may offer additional flexibility and decrease the potential for injuries, research reveals static stretching –stretching muscles to an elongated position (oftentimes causing discomfort) and holding it for 30 seconds to 2 minutes –may not be as beneficial for weight lifting as initially proposed.
In one study, researchers experimented with passive static stretching, studying its effects on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. Passive static stretching (PSS) is a form of assisted stretching in which an external force (most commonly another person) applies pressure to a limb to move to a new position.
Before executing 1 rep maximum squat exercises (1RM), lifters underwent active dynamic warm-ups by using resistance machines during the first treatment and an additional passive static stretching exercise during the second treatment. Throughout the experiment, the test subjects evaluated their lower-body stability.
Results show “a significant decrease in 1RM (8.36%) and lower-body stability (22.68%) was observed after the PSS treatment.”
In addition, scientists reexamined 104 studies in a meta-analytical approach to understand the effects of pre-exercise static stretching on 3 parameters:
- Explosive muscular performance
After analyzing the collected data and measurements from the numerous studies, researchers concluded static stretching by itself as a warm-up before working out should “generally be avoided.”
In other words, if you are going to be performing squats in the gym, you shouldn’t be sitting on the floor doing butterfly stretches.
How Should You Warm Up?
Although static stretching is ruled out, warming up is an important activity that should not be overlooked.
This leaves some great possible options, 3 of which are dynamic stretches, general cardio, and muscle-specific exercises/warm ups.
So what’s the difference between dynamic stretches and static stretches?
Dynamic stretches don’t stretch muscles, ligaments, and joints past the point of discomfort; they are quite the opposite. Dynamic stretches utilize controlled movements to improve range of motion and warm the muscles.
Examples of lower body dynamic stretches include:
- Leg lifts
Upper body dynamic stretches include:
- Arm swings
- Arm circles
- Shoulder circles
- Side bends
Tip: Remember to keep these movements slow and controlled.
General cardio is another excellent way to warm up before weight lifting. Mild-to-moderate cardio like jumping jacks, mountain climbers, or even a slow jog (on a treadmill or in place) gets your heart rate up and blood flowing.
Adjust cardio time for personal preference. There is no need to go through several cardio warm ups. One exercise is sufficient.
Tip: The key is to feel warmed up, not exhausted.
Lastly, don’t jump right into a full blown 1 rep max set for your first actual exercise. Muscle-specific exercises/warm ups prepare you for the actual lifts you will be doing.
Whatever the workout is, start with lighter weight reps of that exact exercise. For example, if the chest muscles are to be worked out, begin with some warm-up lifts of the specific exercise. If the first lift is flat bench press, use a lighter weight to warm your muscles.
Tip: Keep the reps limited.
Don’t Skip It
There is no established warm up time. Make it as long as needed. More importantly, figure out which combination of warm ups and dynamic stretches work best for you.
Now that you know how to warm up before lifting, workout related injuries are avoidable, and breaking personal records and lifting plateaus are realistic goals.
-  Gergley JC. “Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men.” J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr;27(4):973-7
-  Simic L, Sarabon N, Markovic G. “Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review.” Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 Mar;23(2):131-48.