There’s a lot of confusion about the value of stretching. Should you stretch before a workout? Or afterwards? Or not at all? Well, as with most things in fitness (and life), there’s no one right answer. Let’s talk about the key variables so you can decide when and how to stretch based on your own needs and goals.
Types of muscle stretching
There’s more than one way to stretch a muscle. So before we get into when to stretch, it’s important to understand there are different types of stretching. Technically there are seven categories, but of all these there are just two primary categories we should be doing on our own: dynamic and static.
Dynamic stretches aren’t what you typically think of when you imagine stretching. Rather, these are movements meant to increase blood flow to the muscles, warm up the body and prepare for the more challenging exercises ahead.
As you might have already guessed, dynamic stretching is perfect for warming up prior to exercise. The best dynamic stretching routine will include moves that mimic what you’ll be doing. For example, if you’ll be doing weighted squats in your workout, do a set of body weight only squats as part of your dynamic warmup. If you’ll be running, do some walking lunges and leg swings.
The key to dynamic stretching is to move.
Static stretches are what we typically think of when we think of stretching. A static stretch involves extending the muscle to its maximal length and holding that position. The purpose of static stretching is to relax contracted muscles, lengthen muscle fibers, and increase flexibility in connective tissues.
There’s a lot of technical anatomical and physiological stuff going on here that I won’t delve into – but what’s most important to understand with static stretching is that you must hold the stretch for at least 20 to 30 seconds for it to have any value. Why? Your body has a built-in safety system to protect your muscles from stretching to the point of tearing. When you initiate a stretch, that safety system kicks in by contracting the muscle to prevent it from elongating further. But if you continue to hold the stretch, after 20 to 30 seconds a second process activates that relaxes the “stretch reflex” contraction and allows the muscle fibers to lengthen.
Static stretches should only be performed on muscles that are warm and have lots of blood flowing to them. In other words – after exercise. Numerous studies over the years have shown how static stretching cold muscles prior to exercise can result in reduced muscle performance and potentially even injury.
Why you should stretch
The most well-known and accepted benefits of stretching are improving and/or maintaining range of motion and enhancing the body’s remodeling response to exercise.
Range of Motion/Flexibility
Range of motion (or movement) is a term so closely related to flexibility that these have essentially the same meaning. And that is, the extent to which a joint can move within its established normal range of movement. For example, normal range of motion for raising your straight leg up while lying on the floor would be around 90 degrees, so your leg is perpendicular to the floor. But a gymnast friend of mine can lift her straight leg to bring her foot behind her head – that’s NOT normal range of motion!
Range of motion is an important aspect of functional fitness. As we age, we lose muscle mass. A reduced activity level (e.g. more sitting, less moving) at any age, coupled with our “flexion-based” lifestyle leads to perpetually shortened (tight) muscles, especially in the chest, shoulders, hips, and low back.
Flexibility training (meaning dedicated time spent in muscle stretching as part of an exercise program) directly improves muscle function and improves blood flow to the muscles during subsequent exercise.
Stretching after working out, specifically, helps with your body’s remodeling response to exercise.
In simple terms, during exercise your muscles are called upon to work. This creates tiny micro tears in muscle fibers. When you exercise consistently, your body adapts to that work stressor by changing the muscle’s structure, metabolism, and physiology. These changes, called remodeling, are what lead to all the positive benefits of exercise. Your body effectively remodels itself to adapt to increasing exercise, and you get stronger and leaner as a result.
A 35-year study found that six variables consistently help the body to remodel in response to exercise: timing of nutritional intake (specifically protein), the type of exercise, massage, sleep, low-dose creatine, and stretching.
When should you stretch?
- Before exercising, using dynamic movements that simulate the activities you’ll be doing but without any added weight, and increase blood flow to your muscles and warm up your body. Body-weight squats, wall pushups, lunges, torso twists, overhead reaches, and marching in place are just some ideas. One of my favorite dynamic stretches is old-school toe touches. There was a reason they made us do these in gym class! This move dynamically stretches the core muscles, hamstrings, shoulders and back.
- After a workout, with static stretches of the muscles used in your exercises. Remember to hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds to get the benefit. Also, breathe into the stretch to increase blood flow. Another benefit of static stretching post-workout is that it activates the parasympathetic nervous system – what causes us to relax and calm down. Stretching signals your body that it’s time to rest, relax, and begin the remodeling process. Plus it feels great!
- Periodically throughout the entire day, especially if you’re working at a computer or sitting for long periods. Dynamic stretches – meaning with movement – are best. Think shoulder rolls, neck rolls, leg swings and toe touches.
When should you NOT stretch?
- Static stretching before your muscles are warm is not a good idea – so if you’re preparing to work out, do dynamic stretches to warm up. If you’re going to do some static stretching outside of exercise, move around a bit to get the blood flowing to the muscles you’ll be stretching first, and move gently into each stretch.
- If you don’t feel any tightness in a particular muscle group, there’s no need to stretch it.
If you’re exercising to lose weight, maintain a healthy lifestyle and improve your mood, stretching is great. It will help with functional flexibility and range of motion, muscle remodeling, and initiating the body’s recovery process.