Last updated: March 20, 2020

Depending upon when Yin Yoga is practiced, it can be very good for athletes, but maybe not right before sports.

There are two concerns raised in regards to athletes doing Yin Yoga. The first concern can be found in one yoga teacher’s comments:

Another style that I’m not crazy about—Yin yoga—is widely marketed to athletes. The deep, static stretches of Yin are intended to stretch out the connective tissue—including ligaments. I don’t agree with encouraging athletes to stretch out areas that provide joint stability.

 

The second concern is

Static stretching before sports will diminish power, strength, speed and thus athletic performance.

 

Addressing the first concern requires a review of the effects of Yin Yoga on ligaments, connective tissues and joints, which has been covered in three other sections. Rather than repeat these discussions, here are links to those responses:

 

 

However, one brief observation is worth making in regards to whether flexibility is related to increased risk of injury in athletes. A 2019 study found that extreme flexibility and extreme inflexibility were correlated with an increased risk of injury, but for athletes of moderate flexibility, improving flexibility either did not affect injury risk at all, or in some cases prevented injuries. One conclusion of this study was that there is “no evidence of harmful effects of stretching.”[1]

 

This leaves the second concern: does stretching before sports diminish performance? The science is not clear and the research seems to follow cycles of differing recommendations. From the 1940s to the 1990s the consensus was that static stretching was a good thing for athletes. But from the late 90s to early 2000s, this attitude changed and static stretches were frowned upon. Over the last few years, however, the tide has turned again and static stretching is favored once more, as long as the stretches are less than 60 seconds.

 

Theoretically, stretching can create creep in the muscles and surrounding fascia, lengthening them and reducing their contractile strength.[2] We need our springs (the tendons and ligaments) to be tense, not loosened, to achieve maximum performance. Based on this reasoning, stretching before sports does not seem like a good idea. This logic seems clear and compelling. To quote a 2012 review that looked at over 100 studies on this topic, the attitude in the 2000s was, “acute muscle stretch can significantly impair muscle performance [so] it should be used with caution in a preexercise routine.”[3] This attitude led to a widespread consensus for “the removal of static stretching as part of a warm-up routine and to only include cardiovascular work when strength or power was important to performance.”[4] In other words, athletes were cautioned not to stretch before sports. However, in recent years, these recommendations are being reconsidered.

 

A closer look at the evidence reveals that the effect of stretching muscles is dose dependent. Quoting the lead author of the 2012 review, Dr. Anthony Kay, “the duration of stretch at which significant reductions [in performance] are likely is approximately 60 seconds; however, longer durations (>2 minutes) did not further increase the likelihood of significant reductions.” The findings were “to largely agree with previous suggestions that acute static stretching can reduce maximal muscle performance,” but only for longer-held stretches. Below 60 seconds there was no performance degradation and for stretches over 60 seconds, “there is only a moderate effect.”[5]

 

More recent studies have found positive benefits to short static stresses on sports performances.[6] “[Participants] experienced positive psychological benefits expressing that they were more likely to perform well when stretching was performed as part of the warm-up, irrespective of the stretch type. A positive psychological outlook is an important component of optimal performance.”[7]

 

That is all great for short duration static stretches, but the consensus on longer stresses (i.e., Yin Yoga-like stresses) remains that power and speed is reduced. This may be due to decreased neural activation more than creep, but the causes have not been clearly determined.[8] What is pretty clear is that longer-held stretches result in “changes in viscoelastic properties of the [muscle/tendon unit] which result in increased … compliance and a subsequent decrease in … stiffness.”[9]

 

The studies found ranges of strength reductions of between 4~8% when stretches are held for 60 seconds or longer. For elite athletes this can be significant. However, for some athletes, like hockey goalies, rock climbers, gymnasts and dancers, the increased flexibility, such as the ability to do a full splits, may be more important than the loss of some strength. Like most things in life, whether you should do long-held stretches before your sport depends! It depends on your intentions. To quote Dr. Kay one last time, “It is likely that durations of stretch used in the warm-up routines of most recreational exercisers produce negligible and transient reductions in strength.”[10] Or in other words, Yin Yoga will not be a problem for recreational athletes.

 

While Yin Yoga before sports may not be a good idea for some elite athletes, Yin Yoga after sports may be very good for all athletes. Many athletes feel tight after their sessions. When muscles are constantly engaged or used, they can become contracted and shortened. Stretching after exercise can help to loosen the muscles and surrounding fascia and regain the normal elasticity and ranges of motion. Static stretching for 5 minutes has been found to significantly improve range of motion and decrease passive stiffness.[11]

Karl Riecken, an exercise physiologist working with triathletes, believes that long-duration static stretching after working out may prevent painful muscle knots, decrease procollagen production (which is actually a good thing because it helps to align the collagen fibers better), and create the greatest changes in functional range of motion.[12] He suggests, “After you’ve accomplished the session, static stretch again the muscle groups from which you are seeking to greatly increase range of motion in the long term. Do this for 5 to 10 minutes in each position. The longer you stay in that stretch, the more effect on your perception of discomfort in that position and the greater the enhancement of your range of motion. Personally, I work on my hip adductors (groin) and hip flexors (including psoas and quads) particularly after running.”[13] While Riecken doesn’t use the term Yin Yoga, his descriptions for long-held static stretches is basically just that.

 

Most of the studies cited looked at short-term, acute effects of static stretching. However, studies looking at long-term, chronic effects have shown that static stretching does not lessen an athlete’s strength, power or speed, but actually can increase performance.[14] Unfortunately, these studies tend to mix both short holds and longer holds, so we cannot claim that Yin Yoga will improve performance, but we can say that it doesn’t make performance worse in the long term.

 

Finally, Yin Yoga works more than just the physical body. There are many reasons people come to Yin Yoga, even athletes, beyond the physical. There are meditative benefits, the ability to recognize and deal with stress, work with the breath to calm and relax, as well as previously cited “positive psychological benefits.” Why wouldn’t athletes of all stripes want these benefits?

 

In short: The scientific consensus has varied considerably over the decades, but currently it is believed that short static stretching before your sport or workout may improve your performance or reduce your chance of injury. Longer static stretches before your sport may improve your range of motion, but at a cost of a slight decrease in speed and power. Additionally, Yin Yoga after your session may help you recover more quickly from your workout and improve range of motion over the long term. Athletes should feel free to experiment with Yin Yoga and see how it can work for them.

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[1] Marie Moltubakk discusses how improving hamstring flexibility, hip abduction, hip external rotation and shoulder internal rotation reduced injury risks in her 2019 presentation of her doctoral thesis.

[2] See my article on Creep and Counterposes.

[3] A.D. Kay and A.J. Blazevich, “Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review,” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44.1 (January 2012): 154–64.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “[Less than 60 seconds of static stretches] per muscle group resulted in increased ROM and either no change or beneficial effects on strength and power performances” from Helmi Chaabene et al., “Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats,” Frontiers in Physiology 10 (2019): 1468.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See T.B. Palmer, J.G. Pineda, M.R. Cruz and C.C. Agu-Udemba, “Duration-dependent effects of passive static stretching on musculotendinous stiffness and maximal and rapid torque and surface electromyography characteristics of the hamstrings,” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 33 (2019): 717–726.

[9] Ibid.

[10] A.D. Kay et al., “Effect of acute static stretch on maximal muscle performance: a systematic review.”

[11] See S. Matsuo, S. Suzuki, M. Iwata et al. “Acute effects of different stretching durations on passive torque, mobility, and isometric muscle force,” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27 (2013): 3367–3376.

[12] See Karl Riecken, “The benefits of static stretching before and after exercise,” Training Peaks.com (July 1, 2016). Karl Riecken is the Coordinator of Performance Testing and Exercise Physiologist at the USA Triathlon Performance Training Center-Certified National Training Center in Clermont, FL.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See Marie Margrete Hveem Moltubakk’s 2019 doctoral dissertation “Effects of long-term stretching training on muscle-tendon morphology, mechanics and function,” presented by the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. You can view Marie Moltubakk presenting her doctoral thesis in this 2019 YouTube video presentation.