Battle of the Stretches: Should You Stretch Before Exercising?

Hey, hey Poga People! Before we “stretch” into the topic of the day, we wanted to say how EXCITED we are about our newest yoga mat launched just last week! Click here to check out the newer, lighter, more portable Pogamat!

When I think about stretching (especially pre-workout stretching), I automatically revert back to my high school days where we did group “stretching” and warm ups in gym class (if it could even qualify as that, considering how few of us were actually cooperating!). More particularly though, I think of every sports team I was on growing up and how we would religiously stretch, warm up and cool down as a unit before and after every practice and game. We would do this like clockwork, never skimping and not daring to half-ass it.

image.pngI remember we might have started with a light jog a few times around the field and then we would segue into a 10-15 minute static stretching session by going around in a circle, each taking the lead on a new stretch. We would then perform about 10 minutes of dynamic stretches such as high-knee runs, glute kicks, lunges, side lunges, high kicks, etc. and then we would finish by performing drills pertaining to the sport. We took this warm up seriously and it was always done as a team. Sound familiar?! We thought so!

So, why did we do this? Why was it so important? First off, we were taught this ritual of warming up and stretching from a young age. Our coaches and parents encouraged us as athletes to regard the warm up and cool down as an essential part of both the training session and the competition itself, as well as a great team-building activity. It became ingrained in us. But why was it so important in the first place? Sports injuries are often a result of insufficient preparation to get the body’s joints and muscles warm and loose. It has long been the belief that the warm-up is one of the most important components of injury prevention.

It was this concept of warming up that was ingrained into my brain at a young age and fostered all the way into my adult years that I always just assumed stretching was, in fact, a necessary action to take before moving on to the main workout. That said, when it boils down to working out individually (which, as adults, most of us try to do), the warm up tends to get pushed to the backburner. Is it possible that it isn’t as important as it was cracked up to be? Were we, as kids, misguided in not only what we were doing, but the order that we were doing it in? Or maybe we don’t even need a pre-workout warm up at all? Let’s explore all of this and find out!

What is stretching anyway?

Stretching as it relates to physical health and fitness, is the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen, or elongate, the muscles and associated soft tissues. Upon undertaking a regular routine, a number of changes begin to occur within the body and specifically within the muscles themselves.

The 2 Main Types of Stretching

Let’s break it down. If you start to look up the different types of stretches, you will get a variety of different answers including anywhere from 5-8 different categories, different types within these categories and different opinions as to where each type should fall. It can start to become very confusing and downright overwhelming. Although there are many different ways to perform pre-workout exercises, they can all be grouped into one of two categories: Static or Dynamic, which we will focus on in this article.

To keep it simple, the term “static” refers to stretches that are performed without movement. In other words, the individual gets into the position and holds it for a specific amount of time. The term dynamic refers to stretching exercises that are performed with movement. In other words, the individual uses a movement to extend their range of motion.

*** While we will focus on static and dynamic, it is important to be aware that there are other types of stretching, as well. In case you are interested in further learning about the full range, scroll to the bottom of this post for a more in-depth breakdown.

Pre-workout stretching

The Debate About Pre-Workout Stretching

If you were to ask professionals in both the medical and physical fitness fields whether or not warming up before a workout is beneficial, you might get a variety of answers. Recently, there has been a lot of research (100+ valid studies) that might contradict the belief that performing static stretching prior to a workout or athletic competition helps to reduce the risk of a muscular strain injury. These studies show that static stretching before exercise can lead to a decrease in strength, power and speed, therefore limiting an athlete’s performance. As a result, there have been reputable Sports Medicine educators that have come out condemning static stretching as a part of a warm-up routine.
There is, however, a catch to all of this research! When taking into consideration all of the studies performed and taking a hard look into the finer details, the findings show that the issue is actually with static stretching of 45 seconds or longer to have the harmful effects on muscular performance (including decreases in strength, power and speed). Therefore, if you avoid long duration stretches and instead stick to 30-second increments, you will still produce improvements in muscular mobility.

Still, studies and professionals suggest dynamic exercises (for flexibility) that are performed through a full range of motion for pre-workout warming. These are typically held for just three to ten seconds in order to help prepare the body for the work it is about to do. The main purpose is to increase movement of the joints through a specific range of motion. This helps to increase core temperature and blood flow, wake up the central nervous system and has the ability to improve force production and explosive power. Other benefits include increasing body awareness, and helping with stability and balance—all just during the warm-up!

One thing to note, when use utilize dynamic movement, it should be tailored to the specific type of workout you are about to perform. For examples, runners should target the muscles used for running. Examples of dynamic stretches before a run would include: butt kicks, pike stretch, leg lifts and walking lunges with and without a rotation.

Post-Workout Stretching

According to RadiantHealth.us, there is an optimal time and place for static stretching; after your workout is complete. The reason is that if your workout is a strenuous one, your muscles are likely to be sore. Holding a pose that focuses on specific muscle groups will help ease any post-exercise pain you might otherwise feel. Your muscles will still likely hurt, but the pain will be less severe and long lasting.

Further, static stretching improves flexibility by moving joints through a specific range of motion, however, it does not increase your core temperature. Other effects include suppressing the central nervous system, relaxing the muscle spindles by lengthening them, and has been shown to actually reduce power and force production. This is great for relaxing your muscles after a workout. Individual muscles like hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors, are stretched versus dynamic moves, which usually involve your full body.

According to a New York Times Magazine article, people who play any sports that involve leaping, sprinting and forceful, potentially muscle-ripping movements (i.e. basketball, soccer, tennis, etc.) should warm up in advance. If you are opposed to taking the extra time prior to a run or cycling session, don’t fret. As a general rule of thumb, runners and cyclists can adequately warm up by simply jogging or pedaling lightly. Ultimately, the choice is yours, though we would recommend a nice pre-workout stretch. After all, it can hurt (as long as you keep it under 30 seconds for static or simply stick to dynamic). Stretching offers a wide range of benefits, as noted above. Regardless of what you choose for pre-workout, stretching after exercise or the occa­sional yoga class is advisable for everyone! More on that to come, Pogamat Tribe! Now go on, grab your Pogamat and get limber!

Additional Resources (as promised): A Breakdown of the Different Types of Stretches

Static – this is when you extend a muscle to the full extent of your ability and holding it for 15 to 30 seconds. For example, when you perform a stretch and hold the tension you feel in the area of the body that you are lengthening, you are performing a “fixed” stretch (just avoid pushing it to where it hurts).
Dynamic– a form of active movement that isn’t about holding a stretch but rather taking your body through ranges of motion that will better prepare you for your workout or sporting activity.
Passive–performed when a partner moves your body into a stretch and proceeds to hold the tension while you are completely relaxed.
Ballistic– this involves using your body’s momentum to bounce in and out of stiffness (not recommended by many experts for the fear of potential injury).
PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation)– describes a combination of passive stretching followed by different types of muscular contractions. During the common “contract-relax” PNF, a partner pushes you into a short duration stretch that is followed by a brief 5-10 second contraction of that muscle. After relaxing, the partner then pushes the muscle further into another stretch.
AIS (Active isolated stretching) –performed in sets of reps, much like weight training. Each stretch is only held for two seconds before it is released and then held again. Each subsequent stretch should increase in intensity over the course of the set.
Myofascial – a release utilizing a foam roller to stretch muscles and fascia, the body’s complex system of connective tissues. Pressure is applied by moving a foam roller over the target area in short, controlled movements. Similar to deep tissue massage, but it can be self-administered.
Isometric – a form of passive stretching similar to PNF, but the contractions are held for a longer period of time. To perform, assume the position of the passive stretch and then contract the stretched muscle for 10 to 15 seconds. Be sure that all movement of the limb is restricted. Then relax the muscle for at least 20 seconds. This procedure should be repeated two to five times.

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