To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

Should I stretch before my workout? Is it important to stretch when I finish exercising? These are questions that have been tossed around among fitness professionals and exercise scientists for years. Many individuals have used stretching before exercise as a way to decrease injury risk. Others have stretched after exercise to decrease soreness. But does it really help? Unfortunately there have not been many studies performed on the effects of stretching, and what has been done is inconclusive1. So what should we do?

 

We’ve all been in gym classes, on sports teams, or in group exercise classes that began each exercise session with a stretching routine. This practice of stretching before exercise has been called into question by studies performed in recent years that have found evidence that static stretching (stretch and hold) before exercise can decrease force output1,2,3. For individuals participating in strength and power activities, this could be very detrimental to their performance.

 

ACSM recommends performing stretches after a workout instead of before in order to warm up your muscles and tendons and increase your stretching effectiveness2. If you would like to stretch before your workout, dynamic stretching is often suggested instead of static stretching, although it too can decrease force production4,5. Dynamic stretching involves moving through a range of motion to stretch a joint instead of holding the stretch for a specified amount of time.

 

But are there actually any benefits to stretching? Yes there are. Stretching is a means to increase your flexibility. Without adequate flexibility it is difficult to reach down to tie your shoes, reach up to brush your hair, bend and twist to rake the leaves in your yard, and any other number of activities.These difficulties become exacerbated with age as our joint flexibility decreaseseven more, making once easy tasks more difficult to accomplish6.

 

Maintaining proper flexibility levels is also important for reducing injury risk. Limited flexibility can lead to injury while exercising, especially during activities involving lots of bouncing and jumping movements7. Overuse injuries have also been associated with reduced flexibility1. On the other hand, some studies have found that stretching, if pushed past a typical range of motion, can increase flexibility beyond safe levels, raising the risk of injury1,8,9.

 

To increase and maintain your flexibility you can either perform regular stretching routines or engage in activities such as Yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi. ACSM recommends performing flexibility exercises of any kind 2-3 times per week to maintain proper flexibility. If you decide to engage in a stretching routine for your flexibility exercises, you should perform 60 seconds of stretching for each major muscle group. Each stretch should be broken up into 2-4 segments of 15-30 second stretches instead of one long 60 second stretch2. Beyond performing scheduled flexibility exercises, get in the habit of moving your joints through your full range of motion while performing regular daily activities. This will keep you joints healthy and help your body maintain its ability to move.

 

So should you stretch?

Here’s my answer:

You should engage in some sort of flexibility exercise 2-3 times per week, and this could include stretching. You should move your joints through your full range of motion each day, and this is a form of stretching. Should you stretch before and after every workout? This is up to you. Definitely warm up your muscles before you begin stretching, and make your focus on improving and maintaining flexibility for a healthy lifestyle.

 

Remember, if you take care of yourself today, your body will take care of you for years to come.

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 Sources:

1. Creasy, J., & Buriak, J. (2014). An evidence based guide to stretching.VAHPERD Journal,35(1), 11-13.

2. ACSM’s Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription 9th edition

3. Haddad, M., Dridi, A., Chtara, M., Chaouachi, A., Wong, D. P., Behm, D., & Chamari, K. (2014). Static stretching can impair explosive performance for at least 24 hours.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,28(1), 140-146.

4. Costa, P. B., Herda, T. J., Herda, A. A., & Cramer, J. T. (2014). Effects of dynamic stretching on strength, muscle imbalance, and muscle activation.Med Sci Sports Exerc,46(3), 586593.

5. Turki, O., Chaouachi, A., Behm, D. G., Chtara, H., Chtara, M., Bishop, D., ... & Amri, M. (2012). The effect of warm-ups incorporating different volumes of dynamic stretching on 10-and 20-m sprint performance in highly trained male athletes.The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,26(1), 63-72.

6. Stathokostas, L., McDonald, M. W., Little, R., & Paterson, D. H. (2013). Flexibility of older adults aged 55–86 years and the influence of physical activity.Journal of aging research,2013.

7. Witvrouw, E., Mahieu, N., Danneels, L., & McNair, P. (2004). Stretching and injury prevention.Sports medicine,34(7), 443-449.

8. Ingraham, S. J. (2003). The role of flexibility in injury prevention and athletic performance: have we stretched the truth?.Minnesota medicine,86(5), 58-61.

9. Myer, G. D., Ford, K. R., Paterno, M. V., Nick, T. G., & Hewett, T. E. (2008). The effects of generalized joint laxity on risk of anterior cruciate ligament injury in young female athletes. The American journal of sports medicine,36(6), 1073-1080.