The Truth About Stretching

Does it help or hurt? Should you do it before or after a workout? Experts sort through the many mixed messages.The benefits of a regular exercise routine are undisputed. But how to start that routine — literally what to do first — is far less clear. Should you stretch before you exercise?

From Zumba instructors and dance teachers to team coaches and personal trainers, chances are you’ve gotten a lot of conflicting advice about stretching. And frankly, a lot of that advice probably just stretched the truth.

Do any of these sound familiar?

You have to hold a stretch to get the benefit.

Don’t bounce in the stretch — you’ll tear your muscle.

If you don’t stretch before a workout, you’ll hurt yourself.

Well, they’re all wrong. But before exploring how and when to stretch, we must answer a bigger question.

Do You Need to Stretch at All?

The American College of Sports Medicine says it’s a good idea. Regular flexibility exercises are “crucial to maintaining joint range of movement,” they say. The group recommends stretching each of the major muscle groups at least two times a week for 60 seconds per exercise.

Some studies have shown that regular flexibility exercises help maintain your range of movement as you age. For example, as flexibility in the hips and hamstrings decreases with age, you may take smaller steps. Regular stretching can help prevent this, says Lynn Millar, PhD, who is a physical therapist and professor at Winston-Salem State University.

Studies also show that regularly stretching the muscles that are constantly shortened through your work posture or daily routine can ease and prevent chronic pain. If you experience back pain from sitting at a desk all day, stretches that reverse that posture could help.

Exercise physiologist Mike Bracko recommends The Standing Cat-Camel as a work-related back stretch. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent slightly. Lean forward, placing your hands just above your knees. Round your back so that your chest is closed and your shoulders are curved forward. Then arch your back so that your chest opens and your shoulders roll back. Repeat several times.

For people whose jobs require them to stay in the same position all day — which is most of us — Bracko recommends quick two-minute stretch breaks to reverse that posture at least every 60 minutes.

Not necessarily. Stretching a muscle to the full extent of your ability and holding it for 15 to 30 seconds is what’s called a static stretch, and there’s no harm in stretching that way as long you don’t stretch until it hurts. But studies suggest a dynamic stretch is just as effective and sometimes better, especially before your workout.

A dynamic stretch, like The Standing Cat-Camel, moves a muscle group fluidly through an entire range of motion.

A static version of the cat-camel could be the following: Lace your fingers together and turn your palms to face outward in front of you. Reach your arms as far as you can, curving your back and shoulders forward. Hold for about 10 seconds. Now release your fingers, and grab your wrists or fingers behind your back. Raise your arms as high as you can behind your back without releasing your hands so your chest opens and your shoulders roll back.

Many of us feel the urge to bounce in order to stretch a little deeper. And anyone who’s had a gym teacher may have been scolded for this. But a recent study showed that “ballistic stretching,” as the experts call it, decreased stiffness in the Achilles tendon while static stretching showed no benefit. The researchers concluded, “The common wisdom that ballistic stretching might be harmful may be incorrect.”

With any stretch, static or dynamic, you should feel a stretch, but you shouldn’t feel pain. So there is no need to stretch farther than the range of motion you typically need.

Should You Stretch Before Exercise?

Not necessarily. There is not substantial evidence that stretching before exercise lowers risk of injury, decreases muscle soreness after exercise, or improves your performance. Although some studies show that stretching before exercise produces all of these benefits, there are just as many — or perhaps more — that say otherwise.

Static stretching before exercise has actually weakened performance, such as sprint speed, in studies. The most likely reason is that the muscles become fatigued from holding the stretch.

“Stretching does not warm the muscles up. It does not reduce the risk of injury. It won’t enhance your workout,” Bracko says.

A proper warm-up is a lower intensity version of the workout you’re about to begin, says Millar. So a good warm-up before a run or jog could be a brisk walk.

But you personally may still prefer to stretch. Millar says this may depend on age or individual joint stiffness. “Although we don’t have research suggesting that we should stretch before exercise, personal experience may say yes.” So if you choose to stretch before a run, Millar recommends a dynamic stretch that simultaneously gets the body moving.

Walking lunges, leg swings, high steps, and “butt kicks” — jogging forward while kicking yourself in the rear end — are all good dynamic stretches to do before a run.

 

However, if the exercise involves a range of motion greater than the one required in everyday activity, Millar does recommend including stretching in your warm-up.

“If I’m going to play racquetball, I want to make sure I do more of a warm-up, and stretching is one part of that,” she says.

She recommends dynamic stretching before any workouts that push you beyond your typical range of motion — not necessarily because you need the actual stretch, but because a warm-up should mimic the exercise itself. So you should move your bodies through the full range of motion you’ll use in the actual workout, starting out slowly and gradually increasing intensity.

Should You Stretch After Exercise?

Some experts say this is the best time.

“Everyone is more flexible after exercise because you’ve increased the circulation to those muscles and joints and you’ve been moving them,” Millar says.

So after exercise is the time you’ll get the most benefit from those static stretches.

“After you go for a run or weight train, you walk around a little to cool down. Then you do some stretching. It’s a nice way to end a workout,” Bracko says.

And it can help prevent feeling stiff later.

“If you’ve ever done a long race and then done nothing afterward, you stiffen up,” Millar says. “That’s why I tell people to incorporate it afterward.”

Can You Stretch Anytime?

Yes. There’s no strong evidence that stretching has any relationship to the rest of your exercise program. It is not a must that you stretch before or after your regular workout. It is simply important that you stretch sometime.

This can be when you wake up, before bed, or during hourly two-minute breaks at work.

“Stretching or flexibility should be a part of a regular program,” Millar says. “It can be wherever you want to put it.”

Courtesy of Web MD.

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Comments

  1. This is a very good article: I DO stretch, and I do work a lot sitting down, and I DO yoga, free style weights, my own type of zumba, and fast walk, and yes, I do stretch, and I have learned how to put my back in, and other muscle groups…my ex was a runner; he ran 10 marathons, and ran five miles a day. He stretched, but AFTER his daily run and that worked for him.

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