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The Stretch Reflex in Physical Exercise and Athletics

What is the Stretch Reflex?

The stretch reflex is a muscle contraction that occurs in response to a muscle’s passive stretching. It happens automatically without you thinking about it as a way for your body to regulate muscle length. This reflex increases a muscle’s contractility as it lengthens, allowing it to produce more force to return to a normal position, protecting it from a tear. 

A simple way to test for the stretch reflex is for a doctor to tap the knee below the kneecap with a small hammer, causing the lower leg to swing forward involuntarily. 

Static vs. Dynamic Stretch Reflex

The two common types of the stretch reflex are static and dynamic.

During a static stretch reflex, muscle tension rises more gradually as the tissue lengthens and is held in a stretched position over an extended period. This helps maintain stability in the muscle and surrounding tissues. 

An example would be holding the bottom position of a squat. The static stretch reflex would maintain the stretched muscles’ contractility, allowing the trainee to hold a safe position and produce more force off the bottom when it’s time to move up.

The dynamic stretch reflex is more popular and is the type most people think of when discussing this topic. Here, a muscle gets stretched faster, causing a more rapid contraction and greater force output. 

For instance, an athlete descends to the bottom of a squat in one to two seconds and almost immediately explodes back to the top.

The Relationship Between the Stretch Reflex and Physical Activities

The stretch reflex plays a crucial role in the stretch-shortening cycle (as a muscle-lengthening phase is immediately followed by a shortening). It’s essential for athletes to perform at the highest level and stay safe.

The stretch-shortening cycle takes advantage of the natural elasticity of muscles and tendons, allowing athletes to produce more force and be more powerful. 

When a muscle stretches quickly before a contraction, such as when accelerating for a vertical jump, the stretch reflex allows for greater force output. This is particularly beneficial for more intense activities like jumping, sprinting, and throwing.

The stretch reflex is also valuable in strength training, particularly for more dynamic lifts, such as those in Olympic weightlifting.

Any movement with an eccentric (lengthening) phase followed by a concentric can leverage the stretch reflex for greater force output. This applies to the bench, squat, deadlift, shoulder press, bent-over row, and many other exercises.


1. What triggers a stretch reflex?

A sudden or gradual stretch of a muscle triggers a stretch reflex––for example, descending to the bottom of a squat causes the quadriceps to stretch, activating the reflex.

2. Why is the stretch reflex important?

The stretch reflex promotes tension and force output when necessary, helping regulate muscle length and improving balance, power, and safety.

3. What is the difference between a dynamic and static stretch reflex?

A dynamic stretch reflex results from a rapid stretch in a muscle, allowing for a stronger subsequent contraction and greater force output. In contrast, a static stretch reflex is triggered by a more gradual lengthening of muscle tissue, providing stability and balance.

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