Whether or not to stretch before exercise has become a topic of debate. Like trying to define what art is, the answer keeps changing.
Some see stretching as a warm-up or part of a warm-up to do prior to exercise. Others argue that stretching is best left until after a workout.
You may recall gym class as a kid doing various static stretches before the main athletic activity. Performing these stretches prepared our bodies for exercise, or so we were told. Now, many health experts recommend warming up before exercise, and leave stretching for the end of the workout.
What is a warm-up?
A warm-up does exactly what the name implies: it warms up the body. International fitness expert Dean Hodgkin explains the aims of warming-up:1
- Activate the synovial fluid in your joints
- Raise your heart rate
- Raise your body temperature
Warm-ups take many forms, but all involve cardiovascular exercise. Consider walking slowing and gradually building up to a jog, instead of standing for ten minutes performing static stretches before you exercise. Or cycle at a low intensity. The recommended duration of a warm-up varies, from about 5 to 20 minutes, but breaking a sweat is a good measure to go by.
Before the cardio part of your warm-up routine, you may also want to consider using a foam roller to massage major muscle groups, which is best done before any exercising or stretching.
When to stretch
You may be better off waiting to stretch until after a workout. You may find stretching cold muscles uncomfortable, and feel ill-prepared for intense training after a few static stretches. Studies verify that stretching before exercise can increase injury risk and reduce stability in the joints. Some experts assert that flexibility stretching should be conducted after a workout, when the body is warmed up from exercise.
Think about stretching during your cooldown. A cooldown is recommended at the end of your workout to reduce the impact of your workout and bring your heart and breathing rates back to normal. For example, after a sprint workout on the track, you could jog for about ten minutes, followed by some stretching.
Should you stretch?
Despite what the experts say, not all athletes share the stretching-mentality. Ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes does not stretch; he cross-trains instead to prevent injury. On the other hand, there are athletes that see stretching as a necessary part of their routine.
Since research and expert opinions on stretching vary widely, perhaps the best advice is to listen to your body.
- Hodgkin D. Physiology and Fitness Course Guidebook. The Great Courses. 2012; 1-329.