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Should You Stretch Before or After You Exercise

Updated on June 14, 2015

We’ve all seen them. Those gym goers who make a show of “warming up” by spending ten minutes using their cardio machine to stretch before they actually get on it. They hold the machine to steady themselves as they pull one leg up behind them to stretch their hamstring. They flex their foot against the bottom of the machine to stretch their calf. They grab onto it and pull away in various directions to stretch their shoulders, back, and chest. Essentially they do just about everything but get on the machine itself. Why? Well because you can’t just jump into exercising without stretching – you don’t want to pull a muscle after all.

In reality, other than procrastinating your workout, that ten minute stretching session isn’t doing much for you. Actually, more and more studies seem to indicate that stretching before a workout can do more harm than good. To reap benefits from stretching – of which there are plenty – it’s best to do it after you workout.

Why Not to Stretch Before You Work Out

While it may seem counterintuitive to hold off on stretching until after you work out, there are a few good reasons to give you pause.

1. Contrary to what was once a common belief, stretching has not been shown to prevent injury. In fact, studies now seem to indicate that stretching prior to your workout may actually contribute to injury because it masks muscle pain, which means you may not recognize the signals that would indicate you should stop an activity.

2. While stretching an already warmed up muscle can be relaxing, stretching a “cold” muscle has the exact opposite effect. Your body actually tenses ups and your muscles contract – not the best way to ease into a workout.

3. Although it might seem like stretching before your workout is like a little massage for your tissues, it can actually cause them to rupture more easily according to some studies. In addition, research indicates it can also produce damage at the cytoskeleton level.

4. Given the previous three reasons to avoid stretching before you workout, it should come as no surprise that pre-workout stretching does not improve performance. Rather, some studies indicate that static stretching in particular (the kind where you hold a certain stretch without moving) actually leads to poorer performance.

So does this mean it’s best to just jump right into a workout cold? Not exactly. You should prepare for your workout, but instead of stretching, you should engage in some warm up activities. How to warm up for your workout depends on what you’re doing and should involve some light movements that sort of mimic the workout that you’re about to engage in. For example, if you’re going for a run, jog in place for a minute or do some lunges or squats. It doesn’t take much. You just want to start increasing the blood flow to your muscles.

How to Stretch After Your Workout

There are two types of stretches that can benefit you after a workout – static and propioceptive.

Static stretching is probably the most familiar form. As noted above, it essentially involves engaging in a particular stretch (e.g. reaching to touch your toes), and then holding that position for anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds or even longer. What’s important to remember when engaging in static stretching is to ease into the position and breathe while you’re doing it. Even though your muscles are already warm, they will likely still tense up a bit initially so deepen the stretch gradually. Also, remember to stop when you feel pain – trying to stretch past the pain will in reality only cause more pain.

Propioceptive stretching, also known as propioceptive neuromuscular facilitation – or PNF – is essentially a combination of static stretching and isometric contractions (i.e. creating tension in your muscle without really moving it). You start by engaging in a static stretch and then you release the stretch and contract the muscle, usually by placing some sort of resistance against it. You then follow this up by settling further into the static stretch again. By engaging in the muscle contraction in the middle of the static stretches, you’re creating tension but also shortening your muscle. This allows your brain to send signals to your muscles telling them to relax, which is why you’re able to sink further into the static stretch afterward.

There is a third type of stretching, popularized back in the day of leg warmers and neon leotards, but you’re better off leaving it in the past. What is it? Ballistic stretching. It involves quick and repetitive bouncing during the stretch. It might seem to cause less pain while you’re doing it, but the constant and rapid switch from relaxed muscle to stretched muscle may cause the muscle to reflexively contract, increasing your risk of injury.

Propioceptive Stretching

Why Stretching is Beneficial

When done properly, stretching can offer a variety of benefits including:

  • Increased flexibility, which broadens your range of motion and can help gradually improve athletic performance
  • Increased blood flow, which benefits muscles and also helps carry away toxins produced by exercise
  • Increased oxygenation to damaged tissue, which helps reduce the recovery time
  • Reduced tension and stress, which helps you feel more relaxed on a daily basis

So the next time someone claims that you can’t just jump into a workout without stretching, unless you want to pull a muscle, you’ll know that the only thing they’re stretching is the truth.

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