According to contemporary research, static stretching may hurt, and not in the good way.

“Knees straight, touch your toes and hold.” The first line of every gym class ever. It’s amazing how the science of exercise physiology has changed in the last handful of years and hopefully influenced what kids are being asked to do when they don their first pair of junior high emblazoned short shorts (my kids are too young, you tell me). If you follow the latest research, touching your toes and holding is now pretty generally accepted as not being an effective way to prepare for athletic movement. I think I am justified in blaming Mr. Johannson’s pre-running stretching routine on my inability to run a sub-9 minute mile as a chubby 11-year-old kid. If you haven’t learned the basics of movement prep, you are doing this exercising thing wrong.

First, what is it that makes stretching bad? Now, I didn’t say that, but yes, there is pretty conclusive evidence to suggest there are better methods to warming up and preparing your muscles, ligaments, tendons, and central nervous system for movement and peak performance than by stretching. Static stretching is still one of the primary methods of maintaining flexibility and mobility, which are vitally important in human movement, but scientific study has indicated that it may actually increase risk for muscular strain (akin to stretching a cold rubber band), may decrease subsequent power development, and that the positive benefits are largely temporary. Despite the last 15 years of research focusing on the drawbacks of isolated pre-exercise stretching, a review of the recent research suggests that it is a little bit more complex than we thought. When combined with an initial aerobic component to warm up the core temperature and aid in dynamic movement prep, static stretching may positively influence the standard warm-up and assist in reducing injury risk. This is why you still see NFL football teams on the ground stretching in unison before games and Olympic athletes integrating many of those same stretches you learned in junior high into their warm up—but they generally have several hours to prepare for activity. For the rest of us, who have about as much time to dedicate to warming up and cooling down as we do to brush our teeth in the morning, focus on dynamic movement prep pre-workout and static stretching post-workout. Get warm, get sweaty, get cool, and get out.

The best, most time efficient way to prepare for movement is, drumroll please: movement. Duh. But it isn’t quite that simple, but it sort of is. As the name suggests, movement prep is nothing more than a series of dynamic movements that increase your core temperature and prepare the components of your musculoskeletal and central nervous systems for physical activity. It can actually help you improve power development, yield long-term flexibility gains, and increase mobility and stability. Most importantly, it helps us activate specific muscle fibers that we may have difficulty getting to fire. When we have muscles that are completely shut off, in order to complete movement, other muscles must compensate, which leads to inefficient movement, muscular imbalances, and, ultimately, injury. In a process known as reciprocal inhibition, when one muscle contracts, its opposing muscle group relaxes. For the majority of us who spend the majority of our day on our sit (glute) muscles, this usually manifests itself in the opposing muscles (specifically the hip flexors) becoming tight and inactive. Inactive hip flexors will not only decrease performance in countless athletic movements, but they are one of the greatest risk factors for injuries to the lower back, knees, and groin. Effective movement preparation helps turn on these commonly dormant muscles and allows us to move in the safest and most efficient manner.

A sample movement prep regimen to prepare for a squat or deadlift workout may include:

  1. Quadruped rock backs – 30 seconds
  2. Bear crawl – 2 sets for 10 meters
  3. Prying goblet squat – 10 repetitions, with a light weight
  4. Side lunge with trunk rotation – 10 repetitions with each leg
  5. Box jumps – 2 sets of 5, on a low box
  6. Kettlebell swings – 2 sets of 5, with a light weight

Interestingly, many of these dynamic movements share a strong resemblance to a child’s active play. It’s amazing how efficiently small children move, how deep they can squat with perfect form, how effortlessly they can pick up things while maintaining a neutral spine, and how good their level of mobility is because they haven’t yet had years of inactivity and sitting to compromise their natural movement patterns and posture. Although you should tailor your warm-up to your upcoming workout, effective movement prep includes actions that involve all five foundational movement patterns: lunging, squatting, pushing, pulling, and rotating. It also involves multidirectional movement, as life rarely takes place in one direction. Remember, you are readying yourself to train movement, not isolated muscles.

You don’t need to hire a trainer with a background in human movement to learn these techniques, take advantage of the benefits of the digital age and use the Google search function to prepare yourself for your best workout ever. While I learned how to properly conduct dynamic movement preparation from college graduate courses and books written by athletic training pioneers like Mark Verstegen and Gray Cook when the debate about the importance of static stretching was just starting, all of this information is now available to anyone with a few minutes and an internet connection. And if you are intimidated by the references to your thoracic spine and the different planes of movement (sagittal, frontal, and transverse), let YouTube guide you.

Don’t let what you learned in gym class hinder your progression. Get ready for your best workout ever by moving like a kid. Get warm, get sweaty, get cool, and get out.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.