To Stretch or Not to Stretch?

To Stretch or Not to StretchIf you’re like most guys, your grade school P.E. teachers, your high school coach, and your college coaches drilled the following mantra into your head: never exercise cold muscles—always stretch before a workout.

Well, it may take some meditation, mental conditioning, or therapy to get some of those voices out of your head, but according to the latest research, the well-meaning curmudgeons that governed your physical education were at least partially wrong. While it is true that it’s not a good idea to do strenuous exercise without warming up your muscles, the idea of stretching before exercise—at least the way they taught you-- is outdated at best—and potentially dangerous at worst.

The idea of stretching before exercise likely began in the 60s and 70s, when experts believed that static stretches--the kind where you extend your muscles to the point of discomfort and hold them there way for several seconds (toe-touches, knee bends, shoulder holds, etc.) increased flexibility and led to better performance and fewer injuries. According to studies by today’s experts, the opposite appears to be true. Stretching muscles to their limit before a workout can cause them relax and weaken or to overcompensate and contract, both of which make injury more likely. It can also lead to muscle strain, causing weakened performance.

Researchers from the British Journal of Sports Medicine Researchers reviewed 12 separate studies on stretching, and noted that those who stretched before or after exercise had the same amount of muscle soreness and stiffness as those who did not stretch at all. And some studies have shown that most of those who stretch before a workout are no less likely to sustain injuries than those who don’t. And, while static stretches can improve flexibility, they only do so in a single position, and at a slow speed. Not too helpful for weight training or a high-impact cardio workout.

Experts now believe the best way to warm up your muscles is through dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves movement—ideally movement that reflects the activity you’re about to do. For example, if you’re about to go for a run, do body weight lunges. About to play tennis? Do arm swings and side-to-side shuffles. These movements get your heart rate up and adequately prep your body for what’s to come.

Although it may not help your workout in the way you thought it would, static stretching does have its place. Doing static stretches for a few minutes twice a day does improve passive flexibility and keeps you limber for everyday activities. Do static stretches after a workout (and man, does that feel great), or give them their own special time slot. Just don’t make them part of your pre-workout routine, no matter what that coach in your head says.