Why Stretching Between Sets Is Bad!

It’s not uncommon to see people in a weights room static stretching between sets – heck you probably have done this yourself to some degree within your own workouts.

Few people realise though, that this practice of holding a stretch for 30 secs or more on the target muscles has a profound effect on not only how effective their training will be, but also the overall safety of it as well.

Depending on the kind of stretching and stretches you choose, you can make or literally break your body and your training.

Most people think they’re doing their body a favour by holding long static stretches for the same muscle groups that they’re about to contract.

However, despite these good intentions, this kind of stretching will not only decrease the effectiveness of the muscles they have just stretched, but it will also make them more prone to injury.

Don’t get this wrong – stretching is not a bad thing to do during your workout. However there is bad timing for certain types stretching practices. And extended holds and static stretching of the to-be-trained muscle groups is bad practice.

Before we go any further into this common improper practice, let’s be clear – Although this applies more to higher intensity strength training, this bad timing and implementation of static stretching extends beyond strength work.

If you’re doing speed work, higher intensity training (e.g. HIIT) or endurance work that requires a lot of muscular output, static stretching will not mix well.

Yes, pulling up your leg for a quad stretch when you stop a run at traffic lights or stretching your triceps before a series of push-ups will not do you many favours – in fact, it’s likely to work against you.

Why? Because maximal force production is impaired for several minutes after static stretching – in fact, the deeper the stretch is, the more impaired force production become (Kokkonen et al. 1998)

Now at this point you might say to yourself that this isn’t true in your case because you have got away with it so far or you don’t work out that hard anyway. The appropriate rebuttal to this argument is that it’s not doing you any favours so why waste your time with it in the first place?

Further, the amount of risk and regression caused depends on the amount of resistance in your lifts and on how strenuously you stretch. Meaning that the day you decide to stretch a little more and push yourself a little more, will likely be the day that you break!

If you’re still sceptical, check your own lifting experience by dropping your static stretching for the muscles you’re training and instead do what we advise in this piece to see the difference for yourself.

No you don’t have to stop static stretching between your work sets or in your rest periods entirely. Instead, you have to change the kind of stretching you’re doing or where you’re targeting your efforts.

Let’s use a common practice as an example. Doing the Bench Press with static stretches for the chest in the rest periods

Everyone wants a stronger bench press. However this is not going to do it for you – in fact, you might even wind up straining a pec for your trouble….

Above: Incorrect Combo – The Bench Press exercise paired with a static chest stretch

Maximal force production in the lifting phase (concentric) of a bench press, is positively related to the stiffness of your pecs and prime movers (Wilson et al. 1994).

Hence, if you’re trying to take stiffness and tension out of your pecs using relaxing stretches for your chest musculature, you will not only decrease the force output, but you will also risk the necessary mechanical tension you need in your chest musculature you need to execute the lift properly and safely

Read – the greater the resistance, the more dangerous and counterproductive it is to do static stretches between sets.

So what is a better approach to doing static stretching and one that can actually work in your favour?

Well there are two.

The first should be almost obvious now – Instead of risking your safety as well as your muscular force output, save your static stretches for the working muscle groups until the end of the workout.

The second is to focus on static stretching of the non-working muscles and movement planes.

To explain what the latter point means, let’s look at the following examples:  

Good and Bad Static Stretching Combos:

Above: Incorrect Combo – Chest strength exercises paired with static chest stretches
Above: Correct Combo – Chest strength exercises paired with static middle-back stretches
Above: Incorrect Combo – Hamstring strength exercises paired with static hamstring stretches
Above: Correct Combo – Hamstring strength exercises paired with static quad stretches

It seems counter intuitive but focusing your static stretches on the opposing muscle groups to the ones you’re working (antagonists) will actually enhance the activation of the muscles you are working.

This makes sense if you consider that you are relieving the residual tension and pull of the antagonists (the muscles inhibiting a movement) and allowing the agonists (the muscles causing the movement) to not be countered as much.

Don’t take it as gospel though – try if for a while and see or yourself.  You will not only improve your strength and power output, but you will also likely get better range of motion in the exercise you’re actually focusing on in your training.

As you can see, there is nothing wrong with static stretching. However there is a wrong time and application for it– and during a strength workout using the same muscle groups is one of them.

If you’re wondering about dynamic stretching for the target muscles in place of static stretching, this is fine – it should be performed at start of workout though.

The only scenario that a static stretch could be employed to help with your target muscles or movements in the training to come, is if an area is particularly tight and it will inhibit your movement during the workout to come. In this case you should complete this kind of stretching about 15-20 minutes before your main workout. 

This should not be required all the time though. Remember, that if the working muscles feel too tight and need stretching, then you’re likely not paying enough attention to your general posture and the recovery stretching.

Static stretching should be performed outside of your training and at the end of your sessions.

Failing to train properly is not most people’s problem – failing to recover properly from training is.

If you need a great post workout recovery routine and stretching program to get your muscles primed for your training, then reach out to one of our expert coaches via the contact form below. 

Our programs are built around the needs of the individual and based on principles of good science and practice. If you’re in pain, or struggling with your movement and/or training, then reach out to us today and get your body to a whole new level: