Though stretching and its benefits are discussed often in the health and fitness world, experts are not in agreement on standards of the practice itself. When should you stretch? Before a workout? After? Do you really even need to stretch at all?
Do you need to stretch at all?
Let’s start with tackling the basic question first. The American College of Sports Medicine not only says that stretching is a good idea, but that it is "crucial to maintaining joint range of movement" as we age. Stretching increases flexibility, and more flexibility may increase athletic performance and decrease the risk of activity-based injuries simply by allowing your joints to move through their full range of motion.
Studies have also shown that stretching also prevents or eases chronic pain associated with muscles that are shortened because of work posture or other daily activities. In other words, stretching the lower back muscles is especially important for those of us who sit at a desk (or stand, for that matter) most of the day.
Should you stretch before a workout?
Unlike the general need to stretch, there is no substantial evidence encouraging stretching before a workout. In fact, much of the research is quite the contrary.
It seems that many people consider stretching before a workout to be a good way to warm up the muscles. Despite the fact that this kind of static stretching does increase blood flow to the muscles, when done at the wrong time, it may be doing more harm than good. The line of thinking is that when you stretch before a workout, your muscles may think that they are at risk of being overstretched. So to compensate, they tighten, which is the exact opposite of what you want and expect from a stretch.
After compiling more than 100 papers on the subject, experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people who stretched before exercising were at no less risk of sustaining injuries. In fact, some experts have even said that stretching thoroughly before working out may put people at risk to pull a muscle because of the likelihood of overstretching.
Despite all of this new research, many people (such as myself) prefer to do a little stretching before a run or workout session, partially out of habit stemming from my high school cross-country running days. But if you’re going to stretch pre-exercise, only do so after a real warm-up. (Side note: A "warm-up" should be a lower-intensity version of the exercise you are about to begin.) Never stretch "cold" before working out.
Should you stretch after a workout?
Yes, yes, a thousand times, yes! There are numerous research-based conclusions that point to the benefits of stretching after working out. The basic science of it is that stretching realigns muscle fibers that become intertwined after exercise. Realigning these muscle fibers by stretching after a workout cuts down on recovery time, allowing you to stick to your workout routine. Stretching also decreases lactic acid buildup in muscles, therefore reducing soreness and stiffness.
However, not all stretches are created equal. Research shows that static stretching (e.g., bending over to touch your toes) is less effective for flexibility than more active or dynamic stretching (e.g., lunges, yoga, leg swings). Experts say that static stretches train muscles to simply endure the stretch, while more dynamic stretches that incorporate more muscle groups train muscles to extend while another group is working.
Go for it
Incorporating a stretching routine into your workout can be very beneficial for your body (i.e., joints and ligaments), especially as you age. Though the research is mixed and convoluted, it seems that it is most important to remember that timing is everything when it comes to stretching. When? Absolutely after working out, but only maybe before (definitely no deep stretches). Why? In order to realign muscle fibers, prevent injury and decrease recovery time, not as a warm-up.
Don’t let the caveats scare you away from making stretching a habit. Go for it—you may be surprised at the changes you experience.
Rashad J. Gober is a gym junkie, avid runner and freelance writer whose interests include pop culture and healthy living. But he's not a doctor, so his suggestions are no substitute for medical advice. Feel free to contact him via Twitter or email with any comments or suggestions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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