What’s up with stretching?
A lot of us grew up hearing that you should always stretch before a workout, game, or any kind of strenuous physical activity. The common knowledge there was that spending 5 to 10 minutes touching your toes (without bending your knees – no cheating!) helped prevent muscle tears or joint injuries.
There’s been some research which suggests this common belief isn’t quite right. There are a number of studies which claim stretching does little to prevent injuries or pain which can show up a day or two after a hard workout (which is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness or DOMS). In fact, some studies argue that stretching prior to exercise can actually weaken your muscles and hurt your performance.
So why exactly is stretching believed to be helpful and why can it cause trouble? The heart of the issue is what’s called “cold muscles,” which refers to muscles that are not ready for sudden activity. Your muscles need a warmup to, well, get warm. Stretching and most physical activity require a certain degree of flexibility (elasticity) and starting before you’ve got your blood really flowing to the area to warm it up can result in an injury. Actually, stretching without warming up the muscles can itself cause an injury.
What should I be doing instead?
So jumping right into cold stretching is risky. The alternative a lot of trainers recommend now is called a dynamic warmup (which you might have guessed if you read the title). This sort of warmup is essentially designed to increase muscle temperature, lengthen muscle fibers, and dilate blood vessels, which prepares your body for the demands of a good workout. There are plenty of options here all of which are considered to be considerably better than static stretching. High knees, hip circles (hitting your glutes with your feet by bending your knee back), squats, lunges, light biking, stair-steppers, or elliptical machines. Or, most simply, doing a very light version of what you plan to do more seriously first. The light version wakes up the “cold muscles” and gets them ready to respond – safely – to the demands of your workout.
How can I do it properly?
A good warmup is spending 5 minutes or so doing a lighter intensity version of what you’re planning on doing for your real workout. Walking before running, slowly pedaling around a flat surface before biking, light aerobics before calisthenics. Preliminary light exercise gives your body time to adjust to the increased demands of a full workout without straining you to the point of potential injury.
If you’re headed to the gym, a good option is using one of the many cardio machines (a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike) just to get the blood moving. Any general cardio will get the blood vessels in your muscles to dilate and be prepared for more. Even just running in place will work. Any activity that’s light but gets your major muscle groups helps.
Reducing workout injuries
A proper active warmup will reduce the chances you’ll hurt yourself. It’ll increase your breathing rate and circulation, ensuring that your muscles are supplied with all the oxygen and nutrients they need to keep running smoothly. Jumping right to cold stretching doesn’t bring the same advantages. If you do unfortunately injure your knee, elbow, shoulder, or foot and ankle, we’ve got a few ideas which might be able to help.
Should I still be stretching at all?
Definitely! Stretching can have real benefits, just not before a workout. After a workout your muscles and joints are loose and warm and your body is returning to a relaxed state. This is the perfect time for you to wind down and work on your flexibility. Stretching after exercise instead of before will bring the benefits of flexibility, speed, power, and reduced likelihood of injury. Everything we’ve been told to expect from a good stretch is true, it’s just that it has to come at the proper time or it won’t work.
As we get older
Especially as we get older it’s a good idea to stay flexible and improve our mobility. Regular stretching can keep your hips and hamstrings elastic. If you have back pain from sitting at a desk all day or posture problems, stretching those muscles can help prevent damage and keep you from more hurting.
With all that in mind, it’s recommended that you stretch all of the major muscle groups daily, or at least every time you exercise (which ideally is a minimum of 3-4 times a week but we all have off days). Stretching for about 10-15 minutes a day can really benefit you. Just remember to breath and never go to positions which cause you pain. Checking in with a trainer, PT, or doctor is a great idea, especially if you’ve dealt with past injuries or surgeries.