Recommended by Dana Sivak, Leisure Fitness – Wellness Outreach Team
When preparing for any type of workout, the old school way of thinking was you had to stretch — touch your toes or lean against a wall to elongate your hamstrings — first. But fitness experts warn stretching before an activity might do more harm that good.
While feelings about the timing and the type of stretching that should be done is mixed, most agree stretching helps improve flexibility, which in turn can improve your athletic performance and decrease your risk of injury.
Importance of stretching
“Flexibility is a key factor in fitness, but the act of stretching is very controversial,” said Nick Milhaupt, personal trainer at Ghost Town Fitness in Kaukauna.
Being flexible improves performance and decreases injuries by helping joints move through their full range of motion. But fitness experts say there is an appropriate time for stretching and it should not be the first part of an exercise regime.
“You want to gradually increase your body temperature and heart rate to prepare the body for vigorous exercise,” said Paula Beyer, wellness director at the YMCA of the Fox Cities in Appleton.
The process of warming up allows the blood in the body to circulate freely. An increased supply of blood makes muscles warm and more pliable, ultimately reducing the strain on them when stretching.
“We stretch to get extra oxygen and nutrients into our muscles so they are able to repair themselves,” said Michael Young, trainer and instructor at Ellipse Fitness in Appleton.
Muscles are not like elastic and don’t easily stretch upon demand. Regardless of an individual’s physical condition or flexibility, sudden or forced stretches can cause harm.
While regular runners and fitness buffs have been doing static stretches before working out for decades, when experts took a closer look at the way the body’s systems work together they discovered this method was no longer effective.
“The thought process on stretching has changed since we’ve become more educated on the body and its systems,” Young said. “There is a huge crossover between the neurological system, the muscular system and central nervous system. We are now looking at the body as a whole instead of one muscle. The central nervous system has to relax before it releases the muscles to be ready to stretch.”
Timing is crucial
“If you try to stretch muscles when they are cooler, you are in fact irritating the body’s fascia system,” Young said. “This system almost goes into shock, where it wants to shrink the muscles instead of loosening them up.”
He explains to his exercise classes that, especially for the big muscle groups like the hamstrings and back, stretching should be done post-workout when the fascial system is red hot and primed to be stretched.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that have strained their muscles because they wake up in the morning and want to go for a jog,” Young said. “They begin stretching when their muscles are dead cold and they fall apart.”
“They’ve done research and concluded stretching prior to exercise doesn’t decrease the chances of injury or soreness. It’s the stretching after a workout that is important,” Beyer said.
When beginning a workout, try starting with light walking, jogging or biking at a low intensity before jumping into the full routine.
“Most people find when they are doing their fitness activity and they are using a full range of motion, they are getting their stretching in while they exercise,” Milhaupt said.
“People that do static stretching tend to have significant power loss when they do their event.”
About 10 years ago, researchers began testing this theory. They found when athletes did static stretches, their performance suffered. They couldn’t jump as high or run as fast. Milhaupt said stretching a cold muscle causes it to tighten, not loosen.
“Another benefit of stretching after working out is the central nervous system has all of its feel-good transmitters going through it so it tolerates longer, deeper stretches. This is going to provide greater flexibility for the body.”
Warming up and cooling down
Warming up allows the body to slowly adjust when going from rest to exercise. It reduces the stress on the heart and muscles while warming up the body’s temperature. It also improves flexibility and reduces muscle soreness.
The best warm-ups include range-of-motion activities and starting the activity at a low intensity level. Jog in place or do some jumping jacks.
“We start out with a slower warm-up but our warm-ups get pretty intense,” Young said. “We’ll go right into our exercise with a little stretching in there. What a lot of people don’t realize is as you are warming up, natural stretching does occur. If you punch something you are stretching your biceps. If you kick you are stretching your hamstring and glutes.”
At the YMCA, Beyer said their classes typically begin with a lower-intensity, lower-impact version of what the participants will be doing for the rest of their workout.
Many changes are happening to the body and muscles as they prepare for exercise during warm-ups, Milhaupt said, adding, “That is why you should never just go in and doing something strenuous.”
Climate control is an important consideration when warming up, Young said. It will take longer to warm up when it is cold in the fitness room or outside.
After a good workout, muscles and joints are heated up and can stiffen in a few minutes if they aren’t properly cooled down. The cool-down period is the last phase of an exercise session and allows the body to gradually recover from the activity. This is the time to gently stretch to relieve the muscles that have been built up during the workout.
Movements should be controlled and slow. Go ahead and do that beloved hamstring stretch. Stretch the back by lying on the floor, pulling one knee to the chest and extending the other leg. Do a few sets of side bends. Add in some double shoulder circles.
Remember to give attention to all the major muscle groups.
“I think when people stretch they naturally stretch out their hamstrings and calf muscles, but the glutes and hips are a key part of the body,” said Young, noting that deep lunges on each side is a common way to loosen these muscles.
Keep up with the stretching, fitness experts say. While it’s tempting to skip stretching because of time constraints, if stretching isn’t done regularly you’ll lose the flexibility and injury prevention benefits stretching offers.