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Among runners there are a fair number of studies out there right now that static stretching before exercising, at least if you aren't doing it now, doesn't reduce your risk of injury and in other sports there seems to be some evidence that either other warmups are more effective or can negatively impact performance. The evidence overall does seems to be of mixed quality, however.

Yet in many martial arts studios I've seen a combination of static and dynamic stretching as a way of warming up before exercise. I'm wondering if anyone knows of research in this field that's particular to martial arts or combat sports, and if anyone has experience with how effective alternatives to static stretching are in a martial arts context?

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Anecdotally - every gym /dojo I have ever trained in works with light cardio first, then stretching before getting onto the serious business of training. –  Rory Alsop Mar 11 '12 at 21:44
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My personal experience (under a Sensei with lots of sports science related qualifications) echoes the studies you mention. Your muscles have way less elasticity while cold so stretching then can be at best ineffective or at worst detrimental, a light to moderate warmup should be done first. –  slugster Mar 12 '12 at 3:03
    
I recommend a thorough reading of Tom Kurz' material on this subject. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 5 '12 at 20:28
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6 Answers

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There are some very extensive answers on this stretching question on Fitness.SE, which I will use as the basis for this one but adapt in relation to martial arts. Dance, particularly ballet, seems close enough to martial arts due to its large range of motions. Not all martial arts feature extended leg movements, but you can probably infer to some degree how applicable ballet movements are to your martial art given the extremes those dancers can reach.

From a study titled The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature,

Ruth Solomon agrees. Professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Solomon has been a dancer and dance trainer all of her professional life. She has published dozens of books, monographs, and journal articles about training and injury prevention, and is a member of the board of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science.

She is often shocked when she walks into dance studios to teach for the first time and sees dancers stretching on a cold floor.

"I say, 'Please don't do that!' and explain that we'll stretch in the middle and at the end of class," she said.

According to Solomon, stretching must be an integral part of the warm-up process.

"As long as the blood is coursing through the body, the oxygen is flowing through the muscles, and the muscles are warm-then you can stretch," she said. "But not before. If you don't stretch and strengthen together, you'll have a weak muscle. The strength must balance the stretch if you want to control your movements."

Solomon explained that dancers are at risk for injury partly because dance demands such extended ranges of motion. Moreover, ballet dancers typically do exercises such as developpes and grand battements that develop their quadriceps, but may neglect the hamstrings. The resulting strength imbalance puts extra stress on the knee joint.

"If the muscles are really stretched out, the ligaments may not be able to protect the joints," she said. "So you get unstable joints, particularly knees, and you may get hyperextension and ligament tears."

Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretches are now favored in the dance community because they both strengthen and lengthen muscles, Solomon said.

Rocky Bornstein, a physical therapist and long-time dancer, also states in the same study:

"Dancers tend to have a lot of laxity in their joints, a lot of range of motion, so in some cases strengthening may be more of an issue than stretching," she said. "If you have a joint that is not biomechanically lined up, the muscles that move it will be working overtime to compensate. Stretching the muscle without addressing the joint won't help."

...

"Muscle lengths affect other joints in the body," Bornstein said. "People with short hamstrings who don't stretch them are going to break down somewhere else, probably in the lower back. We stretch our pectorals not just to lengthen them, but to alleviate upper back or cervical strain. It's allowing joints to move in the best way possible-and that's not necessarily the joint directly attached to the muscle."

Another study conducted with soccer players explored the effects of static and dynamic stretching on the hip's range of motion during kicking. The study concludes that there is little difference between prior static stretching and no stretching during the backswing phase (when you get ready to kick). However, dynamic stretching creates a significant difference versus static stretching all throughout a whole soccer kick. Again, the soccer kicking analogue is not a perfect one-to-one mapping to martial arts, but some of the fundamental muscular movements should translate.

One study, titled Effects of Two Modes of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Stiffness, compared constant-torque stretching vs constant-angle stretching of the leg flexors on peak torque. The study results show that musculotendinous stiffness decreased after constant-torque static stretching. If the purpose of the stretch is to reduce this stiffness, then constant-torque stretching may be more appropriate than the constant-angle stretching (holding a stretch at a constant muscle length).

Different studies have different conclusions, and there are many variables to consider. It's debatable as you say. In short, static stretching prior to exercise may not prevent injuries. Performing workouts at lower intensities corresponding or relating to the stylistic elements of your martial art is probably better for martial arts than solely stretching. The goal of a warm-up should be to increase the blood flow and temperature in your body, which is not synonymous with stretching (though it can be a component of the warm-up). Your body will adapt to the stress you place on it, and once you have warmed up, then stretching afterwards can help increase your range of motion and relieve muscle soreness.

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From what I've read regarding stretching is that your muscles need to be warm. Whether you do jumping jacks, jump rope, run, practice your forms, it doesn't matter. You need to get your muscles moving first.

After that, it seems that dynamic stretching is more beneficial before exercise, and static stretching is better as a cool-down activity. You can see from this fitness.stackexchange.com question, "Should I stretch after exercise", that there are several considerations and contradictory studies.

The goal of stretching is to improve your range of motion. As such, your stretching should be limited to:

  • The range of motion required to perform your technique correctly
  • Already warm muscles
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I suspect there are hardly any interesting scientific studies on this topic. Most studies I've read focus on popular sports like soccer, football or running. I was able to find two papers that did look (sort of) at martial arts:

  1. There is this paper but since they've measured bench-presses instead of actual training or fighting effectiveness I don't think the study is very relevant or useful.
  2. This paper may be a bit more interesting but it doesn't seem to be freely available.

I do know that research on (static) stretching has been contradictory. There seems to be consensus among researchers that stretching during warm-up doesn't prevent injuries, can actually be the cause of injuries if done incorrectly and that it will reduce power and strength (bad for martial arts!?). However, there is also consensus that static stretching does improve flexibility (good for martial arts!?) and that it is safer than dynamic stretching.

Keeping this in mind, my guess is that mainly martial art practicioners with low flexibility and/or already great power and strength will benefit from static stretching.

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Do you have references on your list of "consensus" items? I've never seen anything about static stretching being safer than dynamic stretching. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 5 '12 at 20:24
    
@Dave The problem with dynamic stretching is that it's more difficult to find your "limit", so overstretching is a bigger risk in dynamic stretching then in static stretching. For references, you can do a search on Google Scholar. You'll find plenty of papers on stretching research there. –  THelper Apr 6 '12 at 5:46
    
Perhaps you mean ballistic stretching? –  Dave Liepmann Apr 7 '12 at 3:10
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I don't think the research articles I've read included ballistic stretching (which sounds very dangerous from the description) I did a quick search to see if I can find the articles that mentioned the potential dangers of dynamic stretching (there were two articles if I remember correctly), but unfortunately I wasn't able to find them. –  THelper Apr 10 '12 at 11:39
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Static Stretching Doesn't Go in The Warm-up

I disagree that the exercise science is of mixed opinion or quality. It seems pretty clear to me that static stretching before dynamic exercises is contraindicated. Warm-up before working out, but don't sit down and relax into a stretch, or hold it for thirty seconds.

Per Tom Kurz, a martial artist who specializes in exercise science and stretching in particular:

Doing static stretches before a workout that consists of dynamic actions is counterproductive. The goal of the warm-up, which is to improve coordination, elasticity and contractibility of muscles, and breathing efficiency, cannot be achieved by doing static stretches, isometric or relaxed. Isometric tensions will only make the athlete tired and decrease coordination. Passive, relaxed stretches, on the other hand, have a calming effect and can even make an athlete sleepy.

Static stretches reduce maximal strength (Kokkonen et al. 1998) and impair activity of the tendon reflexes (Rosenbaum and Hennig 1995). By making fast dynamic movements immediately after a static stretch, an athlete may injure the stretched muscle.

Static stretching has its place in the cool-down, or in separate workouts.

Kurz has a wealth of other references, but the basic ideology is there and sound. One might say, "Hey, that doesn't describe my martial arts warm-up!" or "My class isn't run that way..." or even "I don't run class that way." That's true. Most martial arts classes are not run optimally along these lines. A method being popular does not make it correct.

Proper Warm-up

Doctor AnnMaria de Mars, judo coach and the first American to win a world championship in judo and the mother and coach of two-time Olympian and current MMA champion Ronda Rousey, has this to say about warm-ups:

If you are spending 20% or more of your practice on warm-ups it's a waste of time. Judo class is not gym. Let them get in shape at home.

For beginning students, spending 10-15% of the practice on warm-ups is not a bad idea, for two reasons. One, most new students are not in very good condition. Very few schools have daily physical education classes and your students are a lot more likely to spend their after school hours playing video games than playing soccer. So, warm-ups are good to gradually get them in condition. Two, they don't really know anything yet, so it's not as if you can have them spend the whole time doing throws and pins if they only know one throw and one pin. That's going to get boring pretty fast.

...

Your warm-ups shouldn't be one more bit of monotony. Some people don't mind push-ups, sit-ups and other calisthenics. Some hate those exercises. I try to mix up what we do for warm ups.

Kurz has a more regimented approach, though he agrees that sometimes it's best for hard-charging martial athletes to put aside their Very Serious Training for a workout and go down to the park to play football:

A properly designed workout includes the following parts:

  1. The introduction, where the coach briefly explains the task

  2. The general warm-up, including cardiovascular warm-up and general [dynamic] stretching

  3. The specific warm-up, where movements resemble more closely the actual subject of the workout

  4. The main part of the workout, when the main task is realized

  5. The cool-down

  6. The closing, summing up fulfillment of the tasks and dismissal of the group

(Part 2 refers to dynamic, not static, stretching.)

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Muscle, Tendon, reflex responses

The body has a natural reflex response when a part of the body is moved too fast - it tightens muscles to reflexively serve as "brakes", to slow down the movement. This is specifically a response to try to prevent joint damage. This is a spinal reflex - the nerves send a response to the spine and the reflex is sent back without ever actually getting up to the brain.

The body makes this "judgment call" based on what the muscle spindles have set as their expected, normal length. If they're normally too short, you get muscle pulls/strains trying to do normal range-of-motion movements too fast. If they're normally set at too much length, you have a destabilized joint and are open for injury.

Stretching

Stretching is a way of resetting the muscle spindles to a new "normal expected length".

So if you have shortened muscles, stretching can lengthen their expected range, and prevent injury. If you have lengthened muscles, stretching only further lengthens them and opens you up to damaging your joints.

So stretching might be good, might be bad, based on your body, and the exercises you're planning on doing.

The basic rule is to do dynamic stretching only up to the range of motion you plan on doing for the activity you're going to do. Start slow, and increase speed and force as you go. You'll notice this IS warm up movements.

Static stretching won't help the muscle spindles accept faster motion, dynamic stretching will. Going further than your expected ROM will turn off important stabilizers.

Static Stretching

Static Stretching can be a good tool after resistance training - it resets the muscles longer (after they've been worked for shortening themselves). For nearly most people, this is the only use for static stretching.

The other more specialized use is contortion. After you've stretched the muscles to a certain length, you're now stretching tendon. Tendon, unlike muscle, doesn't regain it's previous length after it's been pulled too far - it's like an over stretched rubber band. which also means you've now got much more destabilized joints and will have to do more work to protect them.

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From my personal experience, stretching is very important. In my two hour Tae Kwon Do class, we warm up with 10 minutes of running before static stretching. This takes about 45 min.

This martial art has been around for centuries, time tells, and so, I'd say that stretching is important.

Once I didn't do any stretching whatsoever before a test. When I went to sparring, I ended up pulling a muscle in the first 20 seconds, making me lose the spar, be unable to break wood and fail the test. Stretching is important.

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Note that the stretches are static but we do a 10 min running warm up before stretching. –  Russell Mar 13 '12 at 11:59
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The fact that TKD has been around for centuries (if it indeed has, which is historically suspect) says absolutely nothing about the usefulness or efficacy of the stretching methodology in your TKD class. It's also likely that the stretching in said class is unlike the stretching done in TKD historically. –  Dave Liepmann Apr 5 '12 at 20:26
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Can you be more specific about what stretching you do and how? That one example alone, from personal experience, isn't enough to conclusively say whether stretching is good or bad. –  Matt Chan Apr 6 '12 at 12:53
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