Workplace Stretching Programs … do they work?


Written by Terry Wong

Pre-start (before-work) stretching programs have been around for decades. They largely resemble what we typically see on the sidelines of parks and courts before a weekend warrior launches into their bout of activity.

The question is … does stretching work? Unfortunately, there is insufficient evidence conducted in workplace settings however there is a mountain of research in the general population that we can look to. So, let’s set the record straight. What do we know from the evidence?

  • Stretching does not warm you up!  i ii
  • Stretching does not prevent injury!  iii iv v
  • Stretching does not prevent soreness!  vi vii

So why do we do it?

The main reason is because we always have!

Stretching has been a part of pre-exercise dogma for decades (much like the “bend the knees, keep you back straight” technique for lifting). Just because we have done something for so long doesn’t mean we should continue to do it.

The second reason is because it feels good.

When we stretch, the body releases feel good hormones similar to a “runner’s high”. If that’s the reason you stretch, then that’s all good ... but call it for what it is!

The third reason is because “stretching” and “warm-up” are used interchangeably.

“Stretching” and “warm-up” are 2 distinctly different things. Stretching, by definition, involves the aim of elongating a muscle; whereas “warming up” is exactly what it says. The fact that “stretching” is commonly thought of a way of “warming up” (a myth long debunked) is the reason for the confusion.

 stretching main 602x400

What should we do as a pre-start routine?

The idea of performing a pre-start routine is a good one. Anecdotal evidence suggests non-physiological benefits to team morale and employee engagement.

If evidence suggests that stretching (in all its forms) doesn’t seem to be adding a huge amount of value, then what should a pre-start or warm-up routine look like?

In the face of a lack of workplace-based evidence, the common-sense test should prevail. It seems to make sense that if the body is better prepared for the work it is about to do, it will perform it better, with greater accuracy and (hopefully) with a reduced chance of injury. It certainly shouldn’t increase the risk of injury.

Here are some tips for you to consider for your pre-start routine:

  • It should mirror the activity you are preparing for. For example, if you need to lift, squatting should be a component of your warm-up.
  • It should be dynamic or movement-oriented (as opposed to static, like most stretches).
  • Easing into a task (if possible) can be just as good. If there is an opportunity to start lighter, at a slower pace or lower frequency and gradually build up in intensity, that can equally serve as a great warm up.
  • Marry your pre-start routine with other goals like retraining the way you move. For example, at Move 4 Life we use a 60-second routine to accelerate rewiring the brain, so people move in a way that enables them to work with less ache, strain and pain.
  • Call it what it is … a warm-up, not stretching!
  • If you want to include some stretching as a “feel good” strategy, then go for it. Just make sure it’s not the majority of the routine and it’s at the end of the routine when muscles are warm and ready to be “stretched”. Stretching a cold muscle is akin to trying to stretch a piece of chewing gum after it’s been placed into the freezer (ouch!).
  • Have a well-designed plan to introduce the idea and make sure it sticks. This includes having a well-thought out routine, resources to support it and people to lead it in the initial roll-out until it sticks and becomes part of what you do.

i  Konrad A, Tilp M. Increased range of motion after static stretching is not due to changes in muscle and tendon structures. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2014;29(6):636–642. doi:10.1016/j.clinbiomech.2014.04.013.

ii  Moreside JM, McGill SM. Improvements in hip flexibility do not transfer to mobility in functional movement patterns. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(10):2635–2643.

iii  Hart L. Effect of stretching on sport injury risk: a review. Clin J Sport Med. 2005;15(2):113.

iv  Shrier I. Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of local muscle injury: a critical review of the clinical and basic science literature. Clin J Sport Med. 1999;9(4):221–227.

v  Thacker SB, Gilchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey CDJ. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: a systematic review of the literature. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36(3):371–378.

vi  Ce E, Limonta E, Maggioni MA, Rampichini S, Veicsteinas A, Esposito F. Stretching and deep and superficial massage do not influence blood lactate levels after heavy-intensity cycle exercise. J Sports Sci. 2013;31(8):856–866. doi:10.1080/02640414.2012.753158.

vii  Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011;(7):CD004577. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub3.

 


About the Author

Terry Wong

Terry Wong

Terry Wong is General Manager of Move 4 Life, the benchmark in preventing sprain and strain injuries and future-proofing an ageing workforce. Move 4 Life helps companies send employees home to their families safely each day.

A Physiotherapist by-trade, Terry has spent the last 14 years in workplace rehabilitation, occupational health, injury-prevention and training. He has held a position as Chair of the Occupational Health Group of the Australian Physiotherapy Association and is widely published on these subjects.

You can find Terry’s LinkedIn profile here.

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