Do You Really Need to Stretch?

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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Do You Really Need to Stretch?

Stretching used to be a no-brainer, but nowadays more and more people are questioning whether it actually offers any benefits to the average exerciser. On the one hand, researchers demonstrated stretching pre-workout isn’t all it was once cracked-up to be, but then there’s the post-workout stretch to consider. Here, we lay out the pros and cons of each.

STRETCHING PRE-WORKOUT

For example, one study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found stretching pre-workout led to more than an 8% decrease in lower-body strength, as measured by a one-repetition maximum barbell back squat. Researchers suggest static stretching may change or limit your muscles’ ability to fire efficiently, which is key for lifting heavy weights or performing explosive exercises (i.e., sprints, plyometrics) safely and successfully.

If you try to lengthen a muscle before giving it the chance to warm up, you can limit its potential to generate strength and power once you get into your workout. This not only reduces your exercise performance (i.e., you won’t be able to run as fast, jump as high or lift as much weight), but it may also increase your risk of injury.

Though, a more recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reveals a pre-workout stretching session had no effect — either positive or negative — on sprinting and jumping performance or change of direction tests in team sport athletes.

Instead of stretching, perform a series of dynamic bodyweight exercises before your workout to increase joint mobility and muscle activation — letting your body know to get ready for action. For example, if you’re getting ready to do a lower-body strength-training session, moves like bodyweight squats, lunges and planks can help prep your muscles and joints for work.

STRETCHING POST-WORKOUT

On the other hand, stretching after your workout can be absolutely beneficial for preventing or reducing muscle soreness — especially when combined with foam rolling, says Dan McDonogh, senior manager of performance training and sports marketing at Under Armour.

While your muscles are warm post-workout (which is ideal for stretching), they’re also tense and shortened after all that contracting during your workout (which is ideal for foam rolling). When your muscles are tense and shortened, they can’t get a healthy blood flow, circulation of nutrients or removal of waste products that contribute to muscle soreness. Foam rolling tense muscles first helps to relax them, which then enables you to better lengthen them when you stretch.

So, your best course of action to prevent or limit post-workout muscle soreness is to foam roll first and then stretch your muscles. McDonogh recommends rolling your worked muscles for 30 seconds before moving right into a series of static stretches. You’ll hold each stretch for 30 seconds max, but make sure to ease your way into it. If you try to force a stretch, your muscles won’t relax and lengthen the way they should. Plus, you risk a pulled or strained muscle.

Another benefit to stretching after your workout is it jump-starts the process of calming your hyped nervous system. “When you stretch, you’re sending a message to your brain that you want to relax,” McDonogh says. Think about it: When you stretch, you (hopefully) breathe deeply and focus on winding down. Chances are you finish your stretch session feeling much more relaxed than when you started. But if you go right from your workout to the shower without taking time to slow down, you don’t give your body the opportunity to return to homeostasis, or a normal state of being.

Stretching is also ideal for times when you don’t plan to exercise, but you need to loosen your muscles. For example, if you wake up in the morning feeling stiff and immobile, a quick stretch session can be a great way to get your muscles back to their ideal length.

You can also stretch during leisure activities: “If I’m sitting down watching TV, I’ll just get on the floor and I’ll foam roll and then stretch because I know I’m not going to be active,” McDonogh says.

Next time you find yourself in front of the TV, try one (or more) of these stretches to stay loose:

HAMSTRING STRETCH

Stand tall with feet together. Step one foot back about two feet and, keeping your back flat and both legs straight, hinge forward at the hips until you feel a slight stretch in the hamstrings. Hold for 30 seconds and alternate sides.

LOW LUNGE

Begin in high plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders. Step your right foot forward so it’s flat on the floor in between your hands and your right knee bends 90 degrees. Make sure to keep your knee directly over your ankle. Lower gently onto your left knee and place the top of your left foot on the ground. Keep your tailbone tucked to avoid arching your low back. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.

CHILD’S POSE

Kneel on the floor with knees wider than hip-width apart and feet pressed together and the tops of your feet on the floor. Push your hips back to sit on your heels and fold forward to place your stomach and chest on the top of your thighs. Stretch both arms out in front of you and try to place your forehead on the floor (if you can). Hold for 30 seconds.

QUADRUPED WRIST EXTENSION AND FLEXION STRETCH

Kneel on the floor on your hands and knees so your hands are directly beneath your shoulders and your knees are directly under your hips. With your palms flat on the floor, gently pivot your hips to create small circles over your hands. Continue until you feel like you’ve gotten a nice stretch and then flip your palms up. Pivot your hips over your hands again until you’ve gotten a good stretch.

TRIANGLE POSE

Stand tall with your feet approximately 4–5 feet apart. Turn your right toes 90 degrees to the right so they face straight ahead, and point the left toes slightly inward. Make sure your heels are aligned. Raise both arms so they’re parallel to the floor with palms facing down. Push your hips to the left while you reach your right fingertips to the right. Keeping both legs straight, fold at the right hip to reach your right hand to your outer shin or ankle, and stretch your left fingertips toward the ceiling. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the opposite side.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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