Back in junior high school, at the start of every physical education (P.E.) class, the gym teacher always led the class with a series of stretches before the class activities began. The goal was to warm up the students’ muscles and prepare them for the next hour’s worth of physical activity.
Nowadays, this practice has become so widely accepted that many people choose to stretch before their daily workout. But is stretching before a workout really helpful or is it better to stretch after a workout?
The Truth About Stretching
There are actually two different types of stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching is done by holding a position, such as touching your toes, for a few seconds. These are the types of stretches that are practiced in those elementary or junior high school P.E. classes. They initially became a trend in the 1960s and 1970s because people thought that static stretches would prevent muscle spasms.
Because people have been doing static stretches before a workout for decades now, many people are under the impression that it can improve their athletic performance, but that is actually a myth. In fact, there are a few myths about static stretching:
- Doing static stretches before a workout can increase range of motion. Some studies have actually proven just the opposite. When you perform static stretches, your muscles tend to contract and tense up in anticipation of the pain of the stretch. And if your muscles are tense, this will limit your flexibility, not increase it.
- Doing static stretches before a workout can decrease the risk of injury. Studies that have compared people who stretch before a workout to those who don’t stretch at all have found that those who stretch were not less likely to suffer an injury than those who don’t stretch.
The truth about static stretching is that it’s best not to do it before a workout. It decreases the activity of the central nervous system, reduces blood flow to the muscles and can actually hinder your athletic performance. But it’s perfectly fine to do it after a workout or any other time of day so long as it’s not before a workout.
If you just can’t kick the habit of stretching before a workout, try doing some dynamic stretching instead. Dynamic stretching is the second main type of stretching and consists of light jogging and sports-related exercises. For example, if you’re going to play tennis or baseball, you may want to practice a few racquet or bat swings. If you’re going to play football, practice a few throws or practice on a few kicks if you’re going to play soccer. If you're looking for more information on dynamic stretching, see 10 Dynamic Warm-Up Exercises.
Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching offers many benefits when done before a workout and can help your body in the following ways:
- It can prevent a sports-related injury.
- It prepares your body for the next physical activity.
- It can increase your range of motion.
- It can increase your core body temperature.
Tips For Stretching After A Workout
If you want to try some static stretches after a workout, follow these steps to do them correctly:
- Hold the stretch until you feel you muscles start to pull.
- Hold the stretch for about 15 seconds or until your muscles start to relax.
- Increase the tension slightly so that you feel the muscle start to pull again.
- Hold the stretch for another 15 seconds or until you can’t increase the tension any more.
When doing static stretches, it’s usually best to do them in intervals, taking short breaks in between sets so as not to tax your muscles. You also want to make sure that you don’t bounce while stretching. This can cause the muscles to contract, which can lead to an injury such as a pulled muscle.
So the bottom line about stretching is that they are better for you after a workout, not before. Static stretching, when done before a workout, can actually cause a pulled muscle or other injury, thereby reducing your range of motion and your athletic performance. However, static stretching can improve flexibility when done after a workout or at the end of the day.
If you still want to warm up before a workout, try dynamic stretching instead. Studies have shown that it is beneficial and is a good way to rev yourself up before a workout. Just be sure to stretch correctly, whether you’re doing static stretches or dynamic stretches, so you don’t injure yourself while exercising, playing sports or going about your daily routine.
However, now that you know the truth about stretching, don’t expect your muscles to feel great after a workout. Studies have shown that whether you stretch before a workout or after a workout, you’re still at risk of developing delayed-onset muscle soreness or delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This is the stiffness that you feel in your muscles after a workout. So, the one thing that stretching overall can’t prevent is waking up with sore muscles the next morning.