07 Mar Should You Stretch Before You Exercise?
Should You Stretch Before You Exercise?
Straight to the point let me answer the question for you…
Should you stretch before you exercise? (What I mean by stretch is, Static Stretching)
A BIG AND EMPHATIC NO
I want you to understand that there are no caveats to that answer either. There is almost NO situation that changes my belief that you should NOT stretch before exercise. Now before you leave a comment ripping into me and telling me how wrong I am, let me explain to you how I came to that very black and white answer.
I was like so many of you, just a few years back, thinking that stretching before exercise was a great way to warm up and ready your self for the exercise you were about to perform. Be it a run, heading to the gym or playing baseball. I thought that stretching would reduce my chances of injury, help with soreness in the muscles felt the next day and that it would give me super human powers when I got to the activity I was about to perform.
I would stand there pulling on one ankle while jerkily grabbing for the wall as I over balanced on the other leg. I would then put my leg up on the wall in front of me and pretend I was Bruce Lee doing a great static hold sidekick all while making the obligatory whaaaaaa noise as any great martial artist would. It all “felt” good, but what I didn’t realise was, that I was just wasting my time.
I continued my sidekick antics pre-workout for years, that was until I met Dr Anthony Shields. Shieldsy, as we would call him, was the lecturer for a 2nd year subject in my Exercise Science Degree called Strength Training for athletes, or something like that. It was 15 years ago; so cut me a little slack if I am not exact with the name of the subject.
I remember him bringing up the topic of stretching in our very first class and it certainly made many peoples eyebrows raise in intrigue and confusion. You see Shieldsy was not your typical academic lecturer.
1st He was built like a brick shit house, I mean he was huge and had no elbow patches in sight.
2nd He was incredibly qualified (like many university professors are) having completed a Phd in his area of expertise, however never wrote his name down with Dr. in front of it as it made him feel self conscious. He also never wanted to have to step in when someone called for a Doctor in the room having no medical degree behind him.
3rd He loved that we called him Shieldsy,
I mean how cool does this guy sound. He certainly doesn’t paint the picture of your regular University lecturer, right?
I say all this because here was a guy who was clearly qualified to be teaching us what he was, and we, the collectively naïve and clueless 2nd year students thought we knew better.
A hand quickly went up to ask the question that was burning on all of our lips. Sir, (it was the very first lecture and so weren’t on nickname basis just yet) I have always been told that stretching before exercise must be done to ensure you have a complete warm up and to prevent injuries.
He then went on to detail why that statement is utterly ridiculous and I want to relay some of that information to you in this article. It is my hope that through this article you get a better understanding of what a warm up is and what you are trying to achieve by doing so and also why stretching could actually be causing you harm when done before exercise.
Static Stretching. What Is It?
I will just let Wikipedia give you the definition of what a static stretch is as I feel it will be much more detailed and straight to the point.
Wikipedia states that;
“Static stretching is used to stretch muscles while the body is at rest. It is composed of various techniques that gradually lengthen a muscle to an elongated position (to the point of discomfort) and hold that position for 30 seconds”
When you hear the term “Warm-Up” what does it actually mean?
Basically you are trying to achieve a few things, but most importantly you want your body to be as ready for the activity you are about to perform as you can.
Now, I said above there are almost no situations where I would suggest that stretching would be of any benefit. Well, when it comes to sports like dancing, gymnastics and potentially even diving where you are required to be hyper flexible, then there may be a case in these kinds of situations. For almost all other sports and activities where being able to bend yourself in half is not required, then stretching is not only not necessary it can actually hinder your performance and may even increase your chance of injury rather than prevent them.
What Actually Happens When We Stretch?
While the exact understanding of what happens when we stretch is not really understood, one thing is becoming clearer as the scientific community completes more research into the area. We are not just lumps of clay that can be molded and pulled apart by persistently tugging and stretching on different parts of our body. (For the 10% of you or maybe more that just giggled, get your mind out of the gutter. Don’t feel to bad though as I also just giggle when I wrote that line)
It actually turns out that the nervous system runs the show and your ability to stretch at any range is determined by your nervous system’s tolerance to that range.
When you try and bend over to touch your toes and you feel that tightness in the back of your hamstrings stopping you from going any further, it is not hamstring talking but the your nervous system telling you that it doesn’t feel safe going any further than you currently are and so it doesn’t let you move any further.
I always remember being fascinated by that statement and it still fascinates me and excites me when talking with clients when they question me about stretching and flexibility.
If Not Stretching Then What Should You Do?
If you are like me and enjoy your running or going to the gym or are someone that enjoys playing a sport like baseball or football then here is my 4 step guide to warming up. I cant guarantee it will keep you injury free, however, it has helped me remain almost injury free for over 15 years now and I have never stretched a day in my life, since Shieldsy class that is, before doing exercise.
- Perform some light aerobic exercise to increase your body’s blood flow and temperature.
- This could be anything from walking, light jogging, star jumps, rowing or bike ergo.
- Complete a round or two of mobility based movements that will be inline with what you are about to perform.
- If you are about to go for a run then doing a few lunges would help, if you are about to play baseball then swinging a heavy bat or performing some stationary shoulder rotations with a dumbbell in your hand would work really nicely as well.
- Self-myofascial release work on a foam roller or lacrosse ball.
- Finding those trigger points and digging a foam roller into them can really help to prime that area for exercise and release some tension built up in the affected area.
- Finally, move into some light versions or movement patterns of the activity you are about to do.
- The baseball player would now start throwing a ball 5 meters then move to 10 meters and so on or a power lifter would do a 20% bench press, then a 30% lift until they are ready to lift their main set.
One final point I want to make is this…..
Stretching after exercise is still very much open for debate. While it has been hard to find that it has any real benefit post exercise, there is nothing to suggest that it will do any harm either.
If you have the time post exercise and you wish to run through a number of stretching exercises then I would say go for it. If you are like me and you would rather just get on with your day and not spend the time on stretching then that is fine as well.
Stretching before exercise was a practice that was very popular amongst team sports back in the 70’s and 80’s and I still see it being performed to this day. My firm belief is that the increase in injuries amongst out sporting elite (take AFL football as an example) is in part due to static stretching routines being performed before exercise. This is just my opinion and there are certainly soooooo many other factors that are also contributing to this increase. However, with a proper warm up and correct training programs there is no reason why athletes or your weekend warrior cant enjoy a relatively injury free life ready to enjoy the exercise and sport they love so very much.