I have long said that gymnasts waste a lot of time doing stretching before practice. Traditionally coaches have felt that stretching before practice is very important because it reduces the likelihood of injury during practice. That is wrong.
First off, lets clarify two very different terms; stretching and warming up. Warming up is a very necessary part of the training session. Not only does it ramp up the body for performance but it allows the mental shift from the outside world to the gym world. Both of those are important for a training session to be effective. No one thinks that a gymnast should walk into the gym and immediately start doing their most difficult skills. If a gymnast is training a double back flip on floor, they usually start practice by doing round off back handspring, round off back handspring tucks, layouts and timers (setting the skill with less rotation). This practice allows the gymnast to convert the “distracted” motor pathways in the brain to begin focusing on a refined movement. Even musicians “warm up” before they play a full song. It gets the mind in line for performance. The other essential part of a training session kick off is getting the brain from thinking about school, boys/girls, parents, work, etc. and lets them focus on skills and the actual physical action of working out. So yes, warming up is very important.
Stretching is also very important for gymnastics. In order for a muscle to become more flexible (allow a greater range of motion) the core body temperature should be elevated and the peripheral (arms and legs) body temp should be warmer than 98.6 degrees too (some studies say 8 degrees warmer, some say 3 degrees. I’m comfortable saying “warmer”). The muscle will be put on stretch and will add more fiber length to compensate for being stretched. It’s a protective response that the body makes to avoid tearing or ripping a muscle when put into a stretch. In this response flexibility is gained. Imagine the opposite: if the body is “cold” the muscles see the stretch action as threatening and respond accordingly. This cold myotactic response is different and the muscles will, instead of lengthen, actually contract or shorten in attempt to protect from further damage. In that way, we can see that coming in off the street and stretching can actually cause more damage to a performance than good. Some coaches tell how their kids gain flexibility from this pre-prcatice ritual; but what is actually happening is that the gymnast’s muscle is actually experiencing micro-tears and demonstrating a gain in range of motion. However, in the longer term, the scar tissue built around the micro-tear is detrimental to flexibility gain. Sorry, that’s a fact. The smarter coach will have their group do all of the stretching to gain flexibility at the end of practice rather than the beginning.
Stretching before a power performance is actually contraindicated. If I have kids vaulting, for example, and I need a speedy run and an explosive rebound from the springboard then having them stretch before vault is going to make the vault less powerful and thus worse. Proof? Put your hand on your thigh. Take your pointer finger and pull it up then release it. It snaps back to your leg right? Now take that finger and hold it up, stretching it back toward the wrist for 30 seconds, then let it go. It drops to be sure but it drops slowly. Right? So if I need explosive and fast from a muscle then putting it into a stretch beforehand is actually making the chance of power much less likely.
Should some stretching be done prior to practice? Sure. Minimal stretching during a warm up can be beneficial as it allows increase circulation and thus better oxygenation of the muscle tissue. Should I think my gymnasts are getting flexible when we stretch before practice? No, I would be wrong. Should we warm up before a workout? Yes. Not only to prepare the body but to prepare the mind for the performance. We can all agree that doing anything while in the wrong frame of mind is 10 times more difficult.
So why do so many coaches do it wrong? Easy. I call it traditionitis. Basically, this is what we’ve always done and so that is what we will always do. It’s the same reason coaches STILL make their athletes do back bends. Science has shown that it damages a young spine, it doesn’t effect what it’s supposed to effect and yet we still do the same old “bridge stretch”. At Gymfinity we have gymnasts elevate their feet to do a bridge to isolate the shoulder muscles and take the impinging angle out of the low spine (we’re smarter than the average bear). But coaches across the country still do bridges because they have always done them. They stretch hard before training because they always have and they do strength training at the end of the session which also is wrong (maximal strength gain is achieved when the muscle is fresh enough to recover when being worked. If the muscle is coming from a semi-fatigued state it is less likely to be able to recover and gain the strength that is desired. Strength will be gained but it’s about 30 % effective). The argument is always “well that’s what we did when I was a gymnast, and I was strong.” But look at the sport. We are getting better performance, less injury and more efficient use of time by leaving our old training traditions and doing it better than before. Over the last 10 years the ability level in gymnastics has skyrocketed. Kids now are doing skills that I thought were impossible when I was a gymnast. This is because we, at least some of us, are training smarter; and science has got our back.