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Is “Warm-Up Stretching” An Oxymoron?

One orthopaedic surgeon thinks so—but why? Here's his take on the matter.

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Photo by James Weber
Photo by James Weber

Is warm-up stretching really a good idea? Does it really do anything for us? My quick answer, as a practicing Orthopaedic Surgeon, is no.

I am going to make a case for not doing any warm-up stretching, because there is a better way. No doubt there is a lot of controversy on this subject. How come? The medical literature, my literature, is confused and conflicted at best. Then look at a lot of other sources, and you’ll most often read more about doubt and dissension when it comes to warm-up stretching.

This debate is based on the medical literature, hearsay and urban myth, not to mention inaccurate use of the terminology. No one has a convincing argument for or against, or the best method to stretch. When we see many very different ways to accomplish the same thing, it can mean none are right, and the search continues as a result. What if the search for the best warm-up stretching method is headed in the wrong direction altogether?

Warm-up stretching is an oxymoron and is a waste of time in my opinion. This isn’t to say warming up isn’t good—warm-up stretching is just an oxymoron.

Let’s define exactly what is meant by warm-up stretching. A warm-up is just that: warming up the muscles and connective tissues to get ready for what lies ahead. Stretching is just that: stretching to get the muscle tendon unit longer to help prevent injuries. That is it, nothing more, nothing less; it is not to warm up muscles and increase blood flow to them. These are two completely different things. This is why using these two terms together is a confusing oxymoron. Stretching, in general, is no doubt good and healthy for us in many ways, but there is a world of difference between daily static stretching and so-called warm-up stretching right before we exercise.

First, let’s get the “static stretching reduces ballistic strength” issue out of the way. If you’ve ever heard this, it’s true. The effect of reducing explosive muscle power by 4 to 8 percent occurs for about 45-60 minutes and then the loss of power returns to normal. This negative effect has been spun, warped and extrapolated into static muscle stretching and is bad all around. So, I agree: Static “warm-up” stretching is not a good idea.

Related: Dynamic vs. Static Stretching

Then comes my favorite: dynamic warm-up stretching. This form of stretching is really not stretching at all. It gets blood flowing to chronically tight muscles; however, it provides little, if any, actual stretch. Dynamic stretching for a few seconds or minutes prior to exercise will slightly elongate a muscle, however if that muscle is chronically and pathologically too short to begin with, it will remain too short, even as you exercise. So using “dynamic” and “stretching” together is another oxymoron.

Therefore, if the goal is to play or practice with muscle-tendon units that are more normal in ultimate length, who said this had to be accomplished just before we exercise? What if this long-held tenet is completely wrong? When we stretch regularly, our muscles will ultimately achieve optimal length where they belong, and we can be ready to go, at anytime. No warm-up stretching needed.

Daily static stretching takes time, sometimes months, to get a chronically tight muscle back to its normal length. That’s why—again, contrary to what some will try to argue—regular static stretching, outside of exercise, is effective at preventing injuries.

But what if you exercise or do an activity that seemingly utilizes the calf muscle? Do you still need to stretch outside of exercise? The answer is yes! This is the second and somewhat related misconception. Exercise (such as tennis, running or swimming, among other sports) does not stretch your calves unless the exercise is specifically directed at stretching the calf, like yoga. However even yoga can be deficient in stretching the three most important muscles: the hip flexors, the hamstrings and the gastrocnemius (calf muscle).

Related: Do These Moves To Prevent Ankle And Foot Injuries

In fact, more often than not, the most fit athletes have some of the tightest calves around. That’s why so many runners, elliptical users, Stairmaster users, CrossFit athletes, and gymnasts have plantar fasciitis; they use their calf muscles when they train, but their calves are still too tight! The reality is that when repetitive motions are used, calf tightening can be more likely to consistently occur; static stretching can undo or prevent this from happening.

Static stretching, apart from exercise, is what helps you have a healthy foot and ankle, and it is the most important thing for you to prepare for battle.

Dr. James Amis is a practicing orthopaedic surgeon in Cincinnati with a focus and specialization on foot and ankle issues. Dr. James Amis is the inventor of the One Stretch. He is also the Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Consultant for the Cincinnati Reds, Cincinnati Bengals, Nike Innovation Kitchen, USOC/USA Gymnastics National Training Center, Cincinnati Gymnastics, Cincinnati Cyclones, Xavier University, University of Cincinnati, Wittenberg University, College of Mount St. Joseph, and the Cincinnati Jungle Cats.