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The Effect of Acute Stretching on Agility Performance

Van Gelder, Leonard H; Bartz, Shari D

Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 2011 - Volume 25 - Issue 11 - p 3014-3021
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318212e42b
Original Research
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Van Gelder, LH and Bartz, SD. The effect of acute stretching on agility performance. J Strength Cond Res 25(11): 3014–3021, 2011—Static stretching (SS) has shown decreases in many areas including strength, anaerobic power, and sprinting time. Dynamic stretching (DS) has shown increases in anaerobic power and decreases in sprinting time. Research on the effects of stretching on agility performance is limited. The purpose of this study was to determine the effect of SS and DS on performance time of a sport agility test. Sixty male subjects consisting of collegiate (n = 18) and recreational (n = 42) basketball athletes volunteered for the study. Subjects were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 intervention groups: SS, DS, or no stretching (NS). All groups completed a 10-minute warm-up jog followed by a 3-minute rest. The SS and DS groups then completed an 8.5-minute stretching intervention. Next, all subjects completed 3 trials of the 505 agility test with 2–5 minutes of rest between trials. A 2-way repeated-measure analysis of variance (Stretch group, athlete category, group × athlete interaction) was used to determine statistical significance (p < 0.05). A Tukey post hoc test was performed to determine differences between groups. For all athletes, the DS group produced significantly faster times on the agility test (2.22 ± 0.12 seconds, mean ± SD) in comparison to both the SS group (2.33 ± 0.15 seconds, p = 0.013) and NS group (2.32 ± 0.12 seconds, p = 0.026). Differences between the SS and NS groups revealed no significance (p = 0.962). There was a significant difference in mean times for the type of athlete (p = 0.002); however, interaction between the type of athlete and stretching group was not significant (p = 0.520). These results indicate that in comparison to SS or NS, DS significantly improves performance on closed agility skills involving a 180° change of direction.

Department of Movement Science, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan

Address correspondence to Leonard H. Van Gelder, leonard@dynamicprinciples.com.

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Introduction

In recent years, the professional strength and conditioning community has transitioned away from static stretching (SS) into dynamic stretching (DS) during warm-up as a method to improve athletic performance (15,18,24,27,44). DS is theorized to be more functionally and physiologically applicable to sport activity preparation. As a result, research has exponentially grown regarding both forms of stretching, in particular with examinations of singular components of athletic performance such as force (5,18,20), power (26,44), and sprinting speed (36,40,43). Another important component to many sports is agility, and to date, there has been little research that has investigated which method of stretching may enhance this area of athletic performance.

Traditionally, SS has been used in combination with a warm-up as an intervention, thought to reduce the risk of injury, increase range of motion (ROM), and improve overall athletic performance. Static stretching can be defined as involving a slow, gradual, and controlled elongation of a muscle, in which the end range is held passively for a designated period of time (2,25). Static stretching has been shown to effectively increase ROM, particularly static flexibility (2). These increases in ROM have been demonstrated in both acute and long-term intervention (25).

Despite traditional thought regarding the role of SS in injury prevention, acute pre-exercise SS has not been shown to reduce the risk of injury (33,39). Although a study by Amako et al. (1) had previously demonstrated a decreased risk of musculotendinous injury from an SS regimen, the results were not specific to pre-exercise acute SS because the regimen was combined with postexercise SS.

In regard to the influence of acute SS on athletic performance, studies over the last 25 years have introduced evidence that acute SS may produce performance decrements (5,13,18,29,43,45). Studies have shown that acute SS reduced force production (18); sprint performance (36,43); depth-jump performance; vertical jump height; long jump distance (13,45); strength endurance (29); and balance, reaction, and movement times (5).

Some studies have demonstrated that not all components of athletic performance appear to be negatively affected by pre-exercise acute SS. Little and Williams found that performance after SS was not significantly different from no stretching (NS) in 10-m sprinting, vertical jump height, and agility (24). In fact, SS provided an improvement in 20-m sprinting compared to NS in their study (24). Yamaguchi and Ishii found that SS produced no significant difference in leg extension power than NS (44). These and other discrepancies (27) demonstrate the importance of additional research on the potential deleterious effects of acute SS.

As a result of concerns with the potential performance decrements of SS, interest in DS continues to grow. Dyamic stretching is defined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a functional stretching exercise that uses sport-specific movements to prepare the body for activity (21). Research on the acute use of DS has demonstrated improvements in sprinting performance (15,24), leg extension power (44), closed skill agility performance (8,24,27), and improved performance for children when executing the long jump (13). A recent study on the long-term use of DS has also shown improvements including increases in quadriceps peak torque, broad jump, underhand medicine ball throw, sit-ups, push-ups, and decreased time in the 300-yd shuttle and 600-m run (19).

The effect of SS or DS on agility performance has not been extensively studied. This is potentially because of the difficulty in standardizing a definition for agility and methods of evaluating agility performance. Most definitions and tests only encompass the physical components of agility, such as directional changes, power, acceleration, and even “quickness” (37). What is commonly excluded from the definition are the perceptual and decision-making aspects (16,37) of agility performance. Sheppard and Young attempted to address this short-coming with his definition of agility as “a rapid whole-body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus” (37). Plisk further divided agility into closed and open agility skills (32). Closed agility skills consist of preplanned agility skills performed in a predictable or stable environment (32). Open agility skills consist of unplanned agility skills performed in an unpredictable or unstable environment (32). The most commonly used tests, including the T-Test, Illinois agility test, Zig-Zag agility test, and the 505 agility test, would be considered closed agility skill tests because of their preplanned nature in predictable environments.

Several studies (8,22,24,27) have attempted to evaluate the acute effects of SS or DS on closed skill agility performance. Only one of these studies examined the effect of SS and DS on agility alone (22). However, this study used the Illinois agility test, which has previously been questioned for its higher correlation to sprint performance (11) and lower correlation to acceleration. Acceleration is widely considered a cornerstone of agility performance (11,31,32,37). The remaining studies examined agility as a component of a battery of tests. The participation in other tests before performing the agility test could have affected performance on the agility test itself.

The objective of this study was to determine whether performing SS, DS, or NS before performing a time based closed skill agility test has a positive, negative, or no effect on an individual's time performance. Two hypotheses were proposed: First, that acute DS significantly improves time performance on the 505 agility test in comparison to both acute SS and NS. Second, that SS would negatively impact time performance on the 505 agility test compared to NS.

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Methods

Experimental Approach to the Problem

Subjects were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 different pre-exercise intervention groups (SS, DS, and NS) to determine the effect of stretching on time performance in an agility test. The NS intervention group served as a control. The interventions were performed after a general 10-minute warm-up consisting of light jogging. After completing the general warm-up and pre-exercise intervention (or no intervention with NS), the subjects performed the 505 agility test. A between-group design was selected for the study for 2 purposes: first, to increase likelihood of recruitment because of minimal time commitment and second, to decrease the chance of a learning effect in the 505 agility test, which could occur in a within-group design by requesting each subject to come back on 3 separate occasions to perform each of the stretching regimes.

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Subjects

Sixty college aged male subjects (age = 20.02 ± 1.51 years) consisting of collegiate (n = 18) and recreational (n = 42) basketball athletes volunteered for the study. Volunteer subjects must have been free of injury for a period of 6 months before testing and were briefed regarding potential risks before providing written informed consent to qualify for the study. Basketball athletes were selected because the 505 agility test had previously been used to evaluate basketball and netball (12) agility and the year-round availability of basketball athletes. Collegiate (National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA] Division II) and recreational athletes were selected based on the likelihood of meeting minimum training levels and being a readily accessible population. The minimal training level required was for subjects to be actively involved in some form of basketball training an average of 3 d·wk−1 for 6 weeks consisting of actual game play, drill practice, conditioning, or any combination of these. Collegiate athletes were in their off-season during testing and completed testing between May and early September. Recreational athletes completed testing from May through October. The methods and procedures for this study were approved by the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) Human Research Review Committee.

One female collegiate athlete and 3 recreational female athletes volunteered and participated in the study but were excluded because of concerns presented during statistical analysis regarding consistencies in time values between the male and female subjects. Three recreational male subjects were also excluded from the final study, because of having run outside of the range of the timing device optical beam leading to inaccurate recording of time.

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Procedures

Subjects were randomly assigned to 3 intervention groups (20 per group). Testing consisted of a 10-minute warm-up jog, 3 minutes of rest, approximately 8.5 minutes of stretching intervention (the NS group proceeded directly to testing). Stretching was immediately followed by instruction and 2 practice trials of the 505 agility test. Directly after the practice, the subjects performed the 505 agility test. Three trials of the 505 agility test were performed with 2–5 minutes of rest in-between trials; this met the rest interval requirements of an exercise performed at 90–100% of maximum power as suggested by the NSCA (10).

The testing began with the subjects performing 10 minutes of slow jogging at a rating of perceived exertion of 3–5 on the Borg CR10 scale (7), exceeding the minimum requirements of a general warm-up recommended by the NSCA to increase heart rate, blood flow, muscle temperature, respiration rate, perspiration, and to decrease viscosity of joint fluids (21). All subjects were given a 3-minute rest at the end of the jog. After the rest, the SS and DS groups performed their respective stretching protocols. Stretching intervention lasted approximately 8.5 minutes, meeting NSCA sport-specific warm-up criteria (21). While the stretching interventions were performed, the NS group was instructed on how to perform the 505 agility test and given the opportunity to do a partial speed practice run of the test twice. After completing the instructional portion of the test, the NS group performed the 505 test 3 times with 2–5 minutes of rest between repetitions. This concluded the testing session for the NS group. Once the SS and DS groups completed their stretching interventions, they followed the same testing procedure as the NS groups had performed after a 3-minute rest and instructional period. Testing was performed on hardwood indoor basketball court surfaces. Subjects were required to perform in shorts, t-shirt, and basketball shoes. No compensation was offered to the subjects for participating in the study.

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505 Agility Test

Concerns with current closed agility skills, such as the Illinois agility test and the T-Test, are their high correlation to sprint performance (11,31), and less so to acceleration. Although the role of acceleration in closed skill agility has been questioned (23), it is still widely considered an important component (11,31,32,37). Because open skill agility tests are still early in development (37,38), the use of a closed skill agility test was decided upon for this study. The 505 agility test is a closed linear running agility skill test involving a 180° change of direction (11). It has been shown to correlate highly to acceleration rather than maximal velocity (11). Although some correlation to sprinting speed was recently evaluated by Gabbett et al. (16), the 505 test demonstrated the lowest correlation to sprinting speed of the 4 agility tests used. Based on the high correlation to acceleration, low correlation to maximal velocity and sprinting speed, and the ease of administration of the 505 agility test, it was selected for this study.

Timing was measured using the Brower Speed Trap I Timing System (Brower Timing Systems, Salt Lake City, UT, USA). The timer tripod was set at a height of 42 cm. This height was selected to prevent the timer from being triggered by the subject's arm, permitting only the legs to trigger timing to begin and end. Cones were placed at 15, 5, and 0 m (Figure 1). Distance from the optical lens of the timer to the opposite cone was set at 2.74 m to meet the 0.31- to 3.66-m limitations of the timer. The timer was located at the 5-m mark.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The 505 agility test was performed as follows. Subjects sprinted forward from the 15-m cones and the timing began once they passed the 5-m cones. When the subjects reached the 0-m cones, the subject made a 180° change of direction and sprinted back through the 5-m cones, at which point the timer was stopped. All subjects completed 3 trials of the 505 agility test with 2–5 minutes' rest between each trial.

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Stretch Interventions

Static Stretching

The SS protocol was designed to be as close as possible to currently used preactivity stretching while remaining standardized for research purposes. The SS group emphasized stretching the primary locomotive muscle groups (gastrocnemius, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, hip adductors and abductors, gluteals) and 4 additional stretches for the abdominals, obliques, pectorals, and spinal erectors. Some previous studies have used SS time periods of 2 minutes or greater (28); however, time lengths of greater than a single set of 30 seconds have demonstrated no additional increases in ROM (3). Based on this evidence, and in consideration of practical time limitations presented in a real-world training session, each stretch was performed for a single set of 30 seconds. Stretches were performed in the order shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Table 1

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Dynamic Stretching

The dynamic stretch selection and repetition range chosen was designed to abridge commonly used prepractice and pregame or competition DS techniques. Similar protocols are currently used worldwide, including the Parisi Warm-up Method, which has been used by over 250,000 athletes across all levels of competition (34). The DS group partook in a blend of mobilization activities, controlled movements through an active ROM, general movement drills, and light plyometric activity. Movements emphasized muscle groups of the lower extremity combined with active upper-extremity movements to target the same muscle groups used in the SS routine. Dynamic stretches were performed in the order shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Table 2

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Statistical Analyses

Sample size was determined using Nquery Advisor (version 7.0, Saugus, MA, USA). The following parameters were used: effect size of 0.27 (based on McMillian agility study [27]), power of 0.90, and alpha of 0.05. A 2-way repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA, athlete category, stretch group, group × athlete interaction) was used to determine statistical significance (p ≤ 0.05). The conditions on this test were that each group comes from an approximately normal population with equal variance. A Tukey post hoc test was performed to determine differences between groups. Statistical analysis was performed using SPSS (version 17.0, Chicago, IL, USA).

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Results

The descriptive statistics for both collegiate and recreational athletes are presented in Table 3. Mean times for both types of athletes are presented in Figure 2. Cronbach's Alpha demonstrated acceptable test-retest reliability (α = 0.889). A 2-way repeated-measures ANOVA with trial as the repeated factor (condition of sphericity was met, Mauchly's test [p = 0.568]), indicates that trial effect is statistical insignificant (p < 0.067). A small effect was noted for trials (d ≈ 0.227) (9), with a power of 0.536. There was a significant difference in mean times between the collegiate and recreational athlete categories (p = 0.002) and also the 3 stretch groups (p = 0.024). The collegiate athletes performed significantly faster (2.21 ± 0.12 seconds, mean ± SD) than the recreational athletes (2.33 ± 0.15 seconds). However, interaction between the type of athlete and stretching group was not significant (p = 0.520).

Table 3

Table 3

Figure 2

Figure 2

The results of the Tukey post hoc test are displayed in Table 4. The DS group demonstrated the greatest performance increases on the agility test with significantly faster times (2.22 ± 0.12 seconds) in comparison to both the SS (2.33 ± 0.15 seconds, p = 0.013) and NS group (2.32 ± 0.12 seconds, p = 0.026), regardless of whether the athlete belonged to either the collegiate or recreational population. The difference between the SS and NS groups was not significant (p = 0.962). The observed power for detecting difference between groups was 0.689 (α = 0.05). Using Cohen's Categories of Effect Size (9), there were large effect sizes between DS and NS (d = 0.83) and DS and SS (d = 0.81) but a trivial effect size between NS and SS (d = 0.08). The confidence interval has determined with 95% confidence that the athlete effect accounts for between 2.3 and 31.8% of the variance in the dependent variable, that the group effect accounts for between 0 and 27% of the variance in the dependent variable, and that the athlete × group interaction effect accounts for between 0 and 11.8% of the variance in the dependent variable (41).

Table 4

Table 4

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Discussion

The principal results of this study support our hypothesis that acute DS significantly improves time performance on the 505 agility test in comparison to both acute SS and NS. The data also reveal that this improvement was expressed in both our recreational and collegiate athlete populations. However, our second hypothesis that SS would negatively impact time performance on the 505 test compared to a NS control group was not supported. No significant difference in time performance on the agility test was shown between the SS and NS groups. Therefore, we conclude, that in comparison to static or NS, DS significantly improves performance on closed linear running agility skills involving a 180° change of direction.

The results of this study support the results of Khorasan et al. (22), Little and Williams. (24) and McMillian et al. (27) regarding the beneficial effect of DS on a closed skill agility test, despite the use of different agility tests between all of the studies. The lack of significant difference between SS and NS was also noted in both prior studies. Only the work of Chaouachi et al. (8) did not demonstrate improvements from DS on a closed agility test in comparison to NS and SS. This apparent inconsistency presented by Chaouachi et al. (8) may potentially be related to the unspecified sport population of their study, whereas those studies demonstrating a positive effect, including this study, involved subjects who were principally trained in sports sharing movement patterns similar to the closed skill agility tests used in the studies.

The design of this study limits the ability to propose an explanation for the performance improvement produced by DS. The existing literature regarding the effects of SS and DS on athletic performance has been primarily focused on the SS-induced force loss and less on why DS improves athletic performance. Because the purpose of this discussion is not to be an all inclusive overview of proposed mechanisms regarding SS-induced force deficits or physiological mediators of increase performance from DS, we will briefly cover current discussion related to the topic.

Several studies have proposed the SS-induced force loss may be in part related to the mechanically based length–tension relationship of storing elastic energy during the eccentric phase of the stretch shortening cycle (18,27,45). Herda et al. (18) hypothesized that the SS-induced decrease in passive stiffness of the tendon would yield a decrease in muscle fiber shortening at specific lengths as determined by joint angles. This would cause the observed stretch-induced force deficit to be apparent at muscle lengths shorter than the length for optimal force production. Other possible influences of SS-induced force loss may include neural inhibition of muscle. Previous work by Behm et al. (6) examined the effect of SS-induced force loss on muscle contractile properties (twitch and tetanic force) and noted that although twitch forces were significantly decreased after SS, there was no decrease in tetanic forces. This led them to propose that post-SS force decrements are more likely affected by muscular inhibition than changes in the viscoelastic (mechanical) properties of muscle.

The role of increased muscle temperature may play an important role in understanding the effects of both SS and DS. Increased muscle temperature has shown to decrease muscle stiffness (30), increase maximal peak force and anaerobic power (35), decrease blood and muscle lactate (17), and increase muscle glycogenolysis, glycolysis, and promote high-energy phosphate degradation (14). Static stretching is a passive activity and therefore likely does not yield an increase in muscle temperature, whereas DS is an active activity, which may yield an increase in muscle temperature. It can be theorized that adding a conditioning activity that yields an increase in muscle temperature after an SS intervention may restore SS-induced performance losses. However, studies combining SS and DS in a single intervention have produced contradictory results. Fletcher and Anness (15) found that a combined SS and DS regimen still produced a significant decrease in sprint performance, whereas Taylor et al. (42) found a high-intensity skill-based warm-up after SS restored SS-induced sprint performance losses. Chaouachi et al. (8)found no differences between SS, DS, or different orders of combined SS and DS. More recently, Khorasani et al. (22) found that combined SS and DS restored agility performance losses in comparison to SS but that DS and NS still yielded greater performance.

Recently, some investigators have suggested that postactivation potentiation (PAP) may play a role in increased DS performance (13,27,44). Postactivation potentiation can be defined as the enhancement in force produced from muscle twitch after submaximal or maximal contraction from a conditioning activity (18). Baudry and Duchateau (4) have provided additional support for the role PAP plays in DS performance increases. In their study, they found that voluntary ballistic contractions performed in advance of a maximal power test yielded an increase in power.

Further research on the influence of DS and SS on contractile history (such as PAP), muscle stiffness, neural inhibition, and muscle temperature in skeletal muscle performance is necessary. Not only may it provide a rationale for the importance of DS intervention but it may also reveal if the type of DS technique (mobility, ballistic, sport-specific, non–sport specific, etc.) and the order in which they are performed (mobility before ballistic, non–sport specific before sport specific, etc.) has any influence on overall performance.

As discussed during the introduction, there is a need for a consensus on the definition of agility and its measurement. The development and identification of closed and open agility skill tests that are sport specific and that have a predictive value of athlete skill level specific (37) to the sport is of great importance. A significant flaw in this study and previous studies is the inability to broadly apply the results to all agility activities. The 505 agility test can only be applied to sports involving running agility skills containing a 180° turn (e.g., basketball, netball, or tennis) and lacks the ability to evaluate the cognitive component of open skill agility. Future studies should include examining the effects of SS and DS on both open agility tests, such as the Reactive Agility test developed by Sheppard et al. (38), and closed skill agility tests that have been evaluated to independently examine the physical aspect of agility exclusive of other components of athletic performance (e.g., maximal velocity).

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Practical Applications

The results of this study indicate that, in comparison to SS or NS, a bout of acute DS significantly improves performance on a closed linear running agility test. Although SS-induced performance decrements are not always evident and combined SS and DS research is still greatly conflicted; DS has thus far shown no performance decrements or increased risk of injury. Therefore, based on available research, DS as a whole demonstrates greater athletic performance benefits as a part of activity warm-up in comparison to SS. This appears particularly important for agility based sports such as basketball, soccer, football, and other rapid change of direction sports. With this in mind, the coach and strength and conditioning professional should greatly consider preferential use of DS during preactivity stretching. Additional thought should be made for the individual demands of a sport which may require greater levels of passive ROM, in which case a further evaluation of the benefits of increased passive ROM must be carefully assessed in comparison to the possible performance decrements of acute SS.

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Acknowledgments

The results of this study do not constitute endorsement by National Strength and Conditioning Association. Supported by GVSU S3 Grant. Structural and grammatical review by Fred Meijer Center for Writing and Michigan Authors. Statistical assistance by Phyllis Curtiss, Sango Otieno, and Neal Rogness of the GVSU Statistical Consulting Center.

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Keywords:

dynamic stretching; static stretching; agility testing; 505 Agility

© 2011 National Strength and Conditioning Association