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In a previous article we discussed the four common stretching techniques, and their respective merits for strength, flexibility, endurance, sports performance, injury risks and doms. The four classical types of stretching include static, dynamic, ballistic and PNF. Static stretching is by far the most popular and common form of stretching that has traditionally been a part of the pre-exercise and competition warm-up regime1. But these conventional stretching practices are being heavily scrutinised, with recent scientific reviews concluding that it is unlikely that pre-exercise static stretching prevents injury2. Equipped with this information, scientists have been exploring new stretching/warm-up techniques. One technique to emerge with some promise is called antagonistic stretching.

Theory Behind Antagonist Stretching

The premise of antagonist stretching rests on the prevailing scientific notion that static stretching results in reduced force production of the given muscle via reduced neural activation, which in turn has a negative impact on strength and power3-9. Also key to antagonist stretching is the premise that the actual force produced during any given movement is proportional to the force produced by the agonist and inversely proportional to the force produced by the antagonist muscles10, 11. It follows that gains in strength/power may be accompanied by an increase in neural activity of the agonist and neurological inhibition of the antagonist.

Study on Antagonist Stretching

With this reasoning in mind, scientists recently conducted a study to test the theory that stretching the antagonist muscle before a given movement/exercise may result in its inhibition and reciprocally facilitate increased activity of the agonist - leading to improvements in measures of strength and power.

To test whether antagonistic stretching can improve strength and power, scientist measured changes in vertical jump capacity and isokinetic knee extensor strength. Antagonist stretching for vertical jump capacity was performed on the hamstring group using the method shown below.

For the vertical jump, antagonistic stretching was performed on the hip flexors and dorsiflexors, using the technique shown below.

Each stretch was held for 30 seconds and repeated 3 times with 20-second rest between the stretches. A 90-second rest period was provided between antagonistic stretching and the knee extension and vertical jump tests.

Effect of Antagonist Stretching Versus No Stretching on Strength

Compared with no prior stretching, antagonist stretching of the hamstring group lead to greater torque production when knee extension was performed at high speed12. Likewise, stretching of the hip flexors and dorsiflexors, the antagonists of the hip extensors and plantarflexors respectively, resulted in a significant increase in vertical jump height and power compared with no prior stretching12.

Summary

While this is the only study of its kind to-date to report such findings, the findings are nonetheless encouraging12. For those interested in applying the findings of this study to your training regime; simply stretch the opposing muscle group for the given exercise you plan to perform. For instance, if one is doing a bench-press exercise, simply stretch your rear deltoids, lats and traps prior to the exercise.

1. Bandy WD, et al. The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstrings muscles. Phys Ther. 1997;77:1090–1096.
2. Shrier I. Stretching before exercise does not reduce the risk of injury: A critical review of the clinical and basic scientific literature. Clin J Sports Med. 1999;9:221–227.
3. Church BJ, et al. Effect of warm-up and flexibility treatments on vertical jump performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2001;15:332–336.
4. Cornwell A, et al. Acute effects of stretching on the neuromechanical properties of the triceps surae muscle complex. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002;86:428–434.
5. Fowles JR, et al. Reduced strength after passive stretch of the human plantarflexors. J Appl Physiol. 2000;89:1179–1188.
6. Kokkonen J, et al. Acute muscle stretching inhibits maximal strength performance. Res Q Exerc Sport. 1998;69:411–415.
7. Nelson AG, et al. Acute ballistic muscle stretching inhibits maximal strength performance. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2001;72:415–419.
8. Power K, et al. An acute bout of static stretching: effects on force and jumping performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004;36:1389–1396.
9. Young W & Elliot S. Acute effects of static stretching, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, and maximum voluntary contractions on explosive force production and jumping performance. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2001;72:273–279.
10. Baratta R, et al. Muscular co-contraction. The role of antagonist musculature in maintaining knee stability. Am J Sports Med. 1988;16:113–122.
11. Draganich LF, et al. Coactivation of the hamstrings and the quadriceps during extension of the knee. J Bone Joint Surg. 1989;71:1078–1081.
12. Sandberg JB, et al. Acute Effects of antagonist stretching on jump height, torque and electromyography of agonist musculature. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012;26(5):1249-1256.

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