Two common beliefs with regards to stretching are that we must stretch before we work out to help prevent injury and prepare us for our workout and that we should stretch after a workout to help decrease muscle soreness.
Unfortunately although the first one is true, the way most people go about doing it has the exact opposite effect to what is desired and the second belief is not true at all.
So what should you do and what shouldn't you do.
There are many different types of stretching and the two I'm going to primarily be discussing are static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is simply holding a stretch for a period of time and dynamic stretching is where your body is moving in and out of the stretch. A simple example of a static stretch is putting your leg up on a bench and leaning forward stretching the back of your leg and a dynamic stretch would be to swing the leg forward and back.
Sretching before exercise is widely believed to be an important part of a warm up. Unfortunately static stretching does exactly the opposite.
The purpose of a warm up is to prepare the muscles and joints for the activity they are about perform. So activities that take the muscle through the range of movement it needs and that turn a muscle on, preparing it for task at hand would seem the best thing to do. Unfortunately static stretching has been shown to temporarily weaken a muscle, it takes a muscle through a greater range of movement than usual but doesn't give it the strength to control that movement.
It's kind of like increasing the power of a cars engine without increasing the power of it's brakes. Sure it can go faster but it is in real trouble when it tries to stop in a hurry.
Put simply there is no positive benefit of static stretching before exercise and many possible disadvantages.
So if we don't do static stretching , do we need to do any stretching at all or can we just go for a bit of a jog or bike ride and get straight into it?
Warming up the joints and muscles takes more than just going for a run.As mentioned before, we need to take the joints through the ranges of movement they are about to use and activate or switch on the muscles that control that movement. This applies whether you are going for a run or doing a gym workout.
If you watch professional sports teams warming up you wont see them holding static stretches but you will see them them swinging their arms and legs around, doing all kinds of movements in different directions.
Think of your body as a formula 1 car. Before the start the cars engine needs to warm up and so does the cars brakes. If they didn't warm the engine up it would not be able to take of and accelerate like it should, if they didn't warm up the brakes it wouldn't be able to control that speed when it corners.
Your warm up should consist of dynamic movements that take each joint through the range it is required to move in for the exercise it is about to perform. This dynamic movement will also activate the muscles that control this movement.
Dynamic movements that increase in range and speed as the warm up progresses are the key to getting truly warmed up for the activity you are about to do.
This can be in the shape of leg swings in different directions, skipping, hopping, jumping in different directions or any other movement relevant to the exercise about to be performed.
If you want to know how to warm up properly for your exercise or sport find a trainer that understands which way the joints and muscles move in your sport and can prescribe dynamic exercises in all three planes of movement.
The next biggest myth in the fitness industry is stretching after a workout helps prevent post exercise soreness. I'm not sure where this came from but there has been no scientific study that has ever "proved" this and many that have "proved" the opposite. (I use proved in " " because scientific studies dont often prove anything absolutely, they merely indicate a likelihood of an event occuring or not occuring in a particular sample population).
Soreness after a workout can be reduced by performing light exercise 12 to 24 hours after the session. For example going for a swim the day after a weights workout or going for a gentle walk the day after a hard run. These light activities get blood flowing to the muscles and speed up the repair time on the damaged muscles.
So if static stretching is no good for warm up, and doesn't help prevent post exercise muscular soreness is there any use for static stretching at all?
Humans are the only creature to use static stretching. Have you ever seen a cat or dog holding a stretch for 30 seconds? The expression move it or lose it comes into play here. If you move your joints and muscles through the range you want to use them on a daily basis you will remain flexible. For example if you squatted down so your bum was touching your heel every day of your life then you would always be able to do this. Do you think little old women in china or india perform stretches every day to make sure they can use a squat toilet? Of course not , merely by using a squat toilet every day of their life they have maintained the ability to squat that low. You do not need to lose flexibility as you get older, although your muscles, ligaments and fascia do lose some of their elasticity as we age if we keep our joints mobile they will maintain the range of movement.
So ideally if we take our joints through all the ranges of movement we want to use every day ( just like a cat or dog does) then there is no need for static stretching. However as we spend years sitting in chairs and slumping over desks often we need to take some more drastic action to get some flexibility back.
This is where a combination of dynamic stretching, exercise and static stretching can help. Static stretching does have some benefits , it is great for helping re-allign scar tissue after minor muscle strains and it does help with overall flexibility (although how much of this increased flexibility is carried over into actual movement is debateable).
Static stretching should preferably be done when warm as the muscles will relax into the stretch more so a great time to do this is in the evening.
So ditch the static stretching before a workout, perform some dynamic movements, do some light exercise the day after hard workouts and static stretch in the evenings when you are warm and you will increase your flexibility and reduce your risk of injury.
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