Is it better to stretch before or after a CrossFit WOD?
Is it better to stretch before or after a CrossFit WOD?
A question that I often get asked by my CrossFit patients is if they should stretch before or after their WOD (Workout Of the Day)? They want to be able to perform at their best and reduce their chances of injury. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. This blog post will explore the different components that make up CrossFit workouts. The differences between static and dynamic stretching will be explained, and their effect on recovery, performance and when to incorporate them into your workouts.
CrossFit has experienced a rapid increase in popularity over the years. It’s a form of High-Intensity Functional Training (HIFT) combining functional movements with high-intensity exercise and a great sense of community. The Workout Of the Day (or WOD) can be modified to suit athletes of varying skill and fitness levels allowing everyone from the novice to advanced athletes to share the experience.
CrossFit combines elements from gymnastics, Olympic weight lifting, running, biking, and rowing. The aim is to prepare people for any physical challenge by developing “broad, general and inclusive fitness”. By combining the different types of exercise, CrossFit can be an effective way to help an individual improve their strength, aerobic fitness, agility, balance and flexibility.
To be able to perform gymnastics orientated movements such as kipping, ring dips, toes to bar and pistol squats, athletes need good mobility in their shoulders, hips, ankles and spine. If you think of the typical gymnast, they’re extremely flexible because of the constant bending and twisting their bodies are subjected to.
Olympic weight lifting, on the other hand, requires the athlete to have a strong, stable spine and torso that can transfer forces generated by the legs to the arms. These athletes have a fantastic range of motion in their ankles, hips, and shoulders. It might seem like they have a flexible spine when they perform their lifts, however, all the movement is occurring in the regions above and below their spine as the spine stays in a relatively neutral position throughout the movement. As a result, the Olympic weight lifter develops a stiff and strong spine and torso, and mobile ankles, hips, shoulders and wrists.
The SAID principle & how it relates to stretching
The SAID principle stands for “Specific Adaption to Imposed Demand”. It means that a body part will adapt to the type of stress or stimulus it is exposed to. Let’s go back to the example of the Olympic weight lifter and the gymnast. The weight lifter develops a stiff, strong spine and torso because their tissues have adapted to become strong and stiff in response to the constant load they’re being exposed to. The gymnast will develop a flexible spine and torso due to the constant bending and twisting. Both athletes require good mobility of their limbs but they differ in their spinal flexibility. This is why it’s difficult to prescribe a general set of stretches for CrossFit athletes because their spines and torsos need to be strong and stable to transfer load during weight lifting as well as flexible and mobile for other exercises.
A general rule is to focus on improving mobility in the ankles, hips, thoracic spine (mid-back), shoulders and wrists. As you can see in this image, these regions of the body are considered to be mobile areas. The low back is considered to be a stable region of the body. For the low back to remain stable and able to effectively transfer load, the hips and thoracic spine need to have proper mobility. Without good mobility in these areas, the low back is forced to compensate and loses its core strength which can lead to low back pain.
Stretching your low back might feel good temporarily because it stimulates the muscle stretch receptors but you could be doing more harm by creating too much mobility in what’s considered to be a “stable” region of the body.
Static stretching involves moving a limb or stretching a muscle to its end range of motion and holding it in the stretched position for 15-60 seconds. Research shows us that static stretching is an effective method of increasing range of motion around a joint. This is due to temporary, elastic changes in the length and stiffness of the muscle and tendon that is being stretched.
Although static stretching has been shown to have a temporary effect on joint range of motion, it can also lead to long-term improvements in range of motion and flexibility if performed regularly. The exact mechanism behind these changes is not clear, however, it’s most likely due to decreased stiffness of the muscle and tendon, as well as an increased stretch tolerance.
Does static stretching help reduce injuries?
Recent studies have found that static stretching before or after your workout will not help reduce your chances of injury. In addition, it does not help improve recovery and, contrary to popular belief, static stretching before or after your workout will not prevent or reduce DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
Can static stretching improve your performance?
We know that static stretching won’t help reduce injuries or improve recovery, but can it help improve your performance during your WOD or competition? This is where the research has shown mixed results. For most CrossFit type workouts, static stretching will more than likely affect your performance. A short-duration static stretch, as little as 3 sets of 30 seconds (90 seconds total), can reduce performance.
Controlled lab studies have found that static stretching decreases the maximum voluntary contraction of a muscle. This is particularly important for CrossFit athletes who are required to perform Olympic lifts and other explosive exercises. Researchers found that static stretching didn’t have as much of a negative impact on sports that were less explosive such as running.
Dynamic stretching or mobilization involves repetitively moving a joint or body part through a controlled, active range of motion. It leads to temporary improvements in joint range of motion without negatively impacting muscle power like static stretching. Studies have even shown that there are potentially greater performance-enhancing benefits associated with longer durations of dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching has been suggested to improve muscle force and power output by:
Increasing the core temperature of the body and muscles.
Stimulating the nervous system, priming it for action.
Decreasing inhibition of opposing (antagonistic) muscle groups.
This is an example of a dynamic stretch or mobilisation exercise for the thoracic spine (mid-back), which is considered to be a mobile region in the body.
How to correctly add stretching into your workouts
Static stretching should never be performed before sports or activities that require high speed, strength or explosive force. Rather perform dynamic stretching or mobility exercises before your workout out or competition.
Static stretching, over time, can lead to long-lasting improvements in range of motion. If stretching is needed to improve functional range of motion or an asymmetry, then it’s recommended that the static stretches be performed after the WOD as part of the cool-down routine. Alternatively, static stretching can be done on a rest day.
Example of an optimal CrossFit warm-up
An optimal warm-up for CrossFit is a three-stage process.
Stage 1 should begin with aerobic or cardiovascular exercise performed at a mild to moderate intensity. The goal is to raise your core body temperature by 1-2 degrees Celsius. At this point, you’ll start to see a few drops of sweat start forming on your forehead.
Stage 2 involves dynamic stretching or mobility exercises. The goal is to repetitively take the different regions of your body through their full ranges of motion. Studies have found that a dynamic stretch duration of just 90 seconds (3 sets of 30 seconds) can help improve muscle force and power production.
Stage 3 involves sport-specific movements. If you know that your WOD is going to involve some Olympic lifting, start with a couple of sets of deadlifts, squats and snatches, replicating the movements that you’re about to perform. If your WOD involves handstand walking, do some static handstands up against a wall. Shift your weight from side to side, focusing on your form, breathing and muscle activation. That way, when you start your WOD you’ve already primed your nervous system and your body to move correctly.
If you’ve been struggling with a CrossFit injury or chronic muscle tension, you would benefit from a visit to your sports chiropractor or physio for treatment and rehabilitation. Constantly tight muscles could be a sign of an underlying imbalance or weakness that stretching alone won’t be able to resolve.
If you have any questions or need advice, please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us. Follow @primehealthperformance_ on Instagram & Facebook for examples of different stretches that can be incorporated into your warm-up and cool-down routines.