Your Go-To Guide For Stretching

Elizabeth Millard
by Elizabeth Millard
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Your Go-To Guide For Stretching

Although workout options like fresh strength and cardio options get the most attention, it pays to spend some time focusing on what you do before and after your workout as well.

Stretching as part of a warmup, mid-exercise break and cooldown can help increase your range of motion, release tight muscles to make them more efficient during a workout and even reduce soreness later. When done right, stretching boosts your exercise recovery — and better recovery means faster results.

Not all stretches are interchangeable, though. To get the best results, it’s important to think about what types of stretches you do — and when you do them.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet to keep in mind before, during and after your next workout:

BASIC TYPES OF STRETCHES

When considering which stretches to use, it’s useful to know the main categories:

  • Ballistic: This is most often seen when you “bounce” during a stretch. For example, you may see people at the gym reaching down for their toes and bouncing in and out of the stretch. This is considered a very ineffective way to stretch, and may even lead to injury because it doesn’t allow your muscles to adjust to lengthening and shortening properly.
  • Dynamic: This is where you move your body through its full range of motion. Even though you’re moving as you stretch, you’re using controlled movements. For example, you may do slow arm swings before doing overhead presses or slow leg swings before going for a brisk walk.
  • Static: When you get into a stretched position and hold it, that’s static stretching. An example is when you get done with a run and stretch your hamstring by putting one leg up on a bench and folding forward toward your knee for 10 seconds.
  •  Isometric: A type of static stretching, isometric contractions involve “tensing” muscles during a stretch and sometimes adding resistance. For example, you might do a calf stretch by bending your knee and putting your foot against a wall behind you, then “pushing” the wall as if you could move it. Isometric stretches are usually held for about 10–15 seconds.

STRETCHING BEFORE A WORKOUT

Stretching to warm up muscles and joints before a workout should involve dynamic stretching, according to Sean Kuechenmeister, a trainer at NY Sports Science Lab, and the best approach is to mimic what you’re going to do during an exercise session.

If you’re planning on running or sprinting, for instance, perform 5–10 reps of controlled forward and reverse lunges on each side. If you’re going to be doing weighted squats — like goblet squats with a kettlebell or barbell squats — do some deep bodyweight squats to warm up.

“This gives your muscles, joints and nervous system an opportunity to prepare for the intense activity you’re about to perform,” he says.

What you shouldn’t do before exercise is static stretches, where you get into a stretch and hold the position without moving. Think of it like trying to pull on a rubber band after you’ve had it in the freezer for a while. Some research has found static stretches pre-workout may even reduce your strength and stability.

STRETCHING DURING EXERCISE

Stretching between sets of a strength-training session can be a good opportunity to control your range of motion, making subsequent sets more efficient, says Kuechenmeister.

“This is a great time to incorporate isometrics for strength or more dynamic stretching to increase the overall cardiovascular demand of your session,” he notes. “Everything depends on your needs and goals.”

STRETCHING TO COOL DOWN

Here’s when that static stretching comes in. Your body needs to shift from zooming along back into a more relaxed state, and making that transition quickly can ensure optimal recovery, Kuechenmeister suggests.

Gentle, static stretches help not only your muscles and joints to make this switch, but also your nervous system, which needs to flip from fight-or-flight mode into its “rest-and-digest” setting. This can also lower cortisol levels that have been elevated by a workout.

“If you’re not performing cooldown stretching, you could be hindering your recovery and making your muscles stiffer,” says Kuechenmeister. “This is the time where you want to work on increasing your range of motion through longer-duration static or band-assisted stretching.”

He suggests working in sets of 30 seconds to a minute for each stretch and focusing on specific areas of tightness unique to your body.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Using different stretching methods can not only help you prepare for a workout, but also recover better and prevent injury.

Keep in mind some people are hypermobile, says Kuechenmeister, so they may require less stretching time overall. Others might need more time, due to prolonged sitting all day or generally tight muscles.

“Our goal should be mobility, which is flexibility plus strength and control,” he says. “Once we have mobility, our bodies will be more efficient and resilient movers.”

About the Author

Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard

Elizabeth is a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness, as well as an ACE certified personal trainer and Yoga Alliance registered yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in SELF, Runner’s World, Women’s Health and CNN.

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