The Best Time to Stretch and How to Do It
Stretching is important, but not for the reasons you probably think. Experts now agree that stretching before working out is not as vital to preventing injury as they once believed. It also fails to prevent pain from sore muscles. Even though it can’t provide these two important benefits, stretching still plays a role in increasing your range of motion, or ROM, and gives your body more agility to exercise, play sports, and do routine chores.
Types of Stretches
There are two main types of stretches: static and dynamic. Static stretches involve stretching a muscle group as much as possible and holding it for 10 to 30 seconds. These stretches can be difficult to hold and may become painful if you push yourself too far. This type of stretching can also tire your muscles out and interfere with your performance ability. For this reason, it’s not ideal to do static stretches before exercise, especially if you’re a performance athlete.
Dynamic stretching involves slow movements while gradually increasing your stretch. These are similar to ballistic stretches which use the body’s momentum and include bouncing, swinging, and other movements that gradually increase the body’s ROM. These stretches are less intense and are better to do before a workout. They won’t exhaust your muscles as much as static stretches and they can help you loosen up before sports and exercise. Studies have also shown that dynamic stretching is more effective than static stretching and that it increases leg extension power. However, keep in mind that stretching in general before sports or exercise may contribute to muscle weakness.
The Safe Way to Stretch
Contrary to what fitness experts used to advise, it’s perfectly safe to perform dynamic stretches, and moving around while stretching will not lessen the benefits of your stretch. In addition, “cold” muscles should never be stretched, and warming up with quick exercises, such as brisk walking or slow jogging, for a few minutes can provide sufficient preparation.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching before and/or after exercise isn’t necessary, but making time for stretching is essential to maintaining flexibility and improving ROM. In addition, stretching also:
- Improves posture
- Facilitates swift movements
- Prevents muscles from becoming stiff and tightening up
- Improves balance
- Provides stress relief
- Increase blood flow to the muscles
While researchers report that regular stretching brings about some of these improvements, PNF stretching, or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, is even more beneficial to improving ROM. These stretches need to be done with caution, and it’s important that you do your research before trying them out. However, they are significantly more effective than static stretches post-workout.
How Much do I Need to Stretch?
No matter how you stretch, you need to do it several times per week to improve your flexibility and receive the full benefits. The American College of Sports Medicine advises that people stretch at least two or three days per week to enhance athletic performance and improve overall health. This can be done any time of day and does not need to occur around your workout to be effective. Stretching before bed may help you relax and sleep better, while stretching in the morning can relieve joint tension and get you ready for your day.
What Else Can I Do?
Preventing Sore Muscles
Although stretching can help alleviate existing soreness, you may be disappointed to learn that stretching before a workout doesn’t prevent it. Here are a few things you can do instead:
- Eat a high-protein snack after each workout
- Drink water before and after exercise
- Increase your carb intake
- Treat exhausted muscles with an ice pack
Minimizing Risk of Injury
One of the biggest reasons people stretch before working out is to minimize their risk of injury. However, multiple studies have concluded that stretching does nothing to reduce this risk. Here is what you can do:
- Listen to your body and know your limits. Don’t push yourself if you’re exhausted or in pain.
- Seek help from a personal trainer when doing new exercises.
- Always remember to do warm up exercises before your workout and a cool-down session afterwards.
The Bottom Line
Stretching won’t necessarily prevent injuries or keep you from feeling sore post-workout, but it’s an essential part of maintaining physical wellness. Make sure to stretch at least two days per week, and always do a few warm up exercises before you begin. Dynamic, ballistic, static, and PNF stretches are all effective, and the type of stretching you do depends on what is more comfortable and convenient for you.