It used to be a given that stretching before and after a workout was both important and effective. But recent articles and studies have questioned the effectiveness of stretching; some claim that stretching is actually pointless. So does stretching work? Should I do it?
Although the latest research on stretching before a workout might say that there’s no point (not conclusively), modern studies still show that stretching post workout is both important and effective. As with most aspects of sports science there are pros and cons to each school of thought. Does stretching work? Yes, but add in other recovery methods and combine them in the correct way at the right time.
Stretching before you exercise
One journal – the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that stretching before lifting weights actually made the muscles weaker. Subjects that stretched before doing a single repetition of a barbell back squat at maximum weight were found to be 8% weaker than those that didn’t stretch beforehand. The report suggests that lengthening a muscle before heavy or explosive exertion limits its ability to perform properly in these scenarios. This suggests that lengthening a muscle before it is properly warmed up will not only limit its ability to perform maximally but might also make injuries more likely.
However a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that pre-stretching before being warmed up actually had no effect, positive or negative. This was again for more intense activities like sprinting and jumping.
Instead of stretching before a workout, a full warm up (see our blog post on a full competitive 2k ergo warm up and a shorter 10 minute equivalent) followed by some dynamic exercises and some dynamic stretching will be more effective. A good warm up sequence would be a 10 minute stepped warm up, a few reasonably paced dynamic exercises like squats or push ups that reflect the workout to follow with some dynamic stretching to finish. This dynamic stretching would be swinging the arms back and forth to activate the chest muscles (for push ups or pressing) or some leg swings activating the hamstrings in preparation for squats or lunges.
Stretching after exercise
Stretching after exercise has been common for decades, if not centuries. But what is the aim of this post exercise stretching and does it work? The answer to the latter question is largely yes, but perhaps not as much as initially thought. The aim of post exercise stretching is usually to a) aid recovery b) reduce muscle soreness c) aid return to normal metabolism post exercise d) increase flexibility.
a) Aiding recovery. Studies show that stretching does increase blood flow to the muscles after training, with the implication of increased recovery; however there is yet to be conclusive scientific proof of this.
b) Although many studies have shown that stretching does help with muscle soreness, the benefits seem to be small, reducing muscle soreness by only 1-4 points on a scale of 100. But In our book, every little bit helps. More interestingly, recovery and muscle soreness is most improved by other complimentary methods to stretching, like massage, cryotherapy (ice baths) and foam rolling.
c) Returning you to a calm state of normal metabolism (and even maintaining physical and mental calmness) is one of the more proven aspects of the post-workout stretch. Static stretching has been shown to increase the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system and increase relaxation.
d) In terms of flexibility and mobility, stretching after exercise is a winner and has been proven to increase the length of muscle fibres and also to relax the control of the nervous system over these muscles, thus relaxing them.
The current research shows that post workout stretching is effective and anecdotal evidence supports this strongly – after all Cirque du Soleil acrobats spend time stretching. However it should be used in conjunction with other therapies, like the foam roller and cryotherapy. Together they will decrease muscle soreness, increase flexibility, increase local blood flow and decrease neural excitability. Remember – always stretch fully warmed up when the muscles, joints and tissue are awake, pliable and hot.