Do you stretch before and/or after working out? Some swear by stretching to recovery faster or to keep injuries at bay.
But the latest research is adding more to the confusion to this age-old question. Some are stating that static stretching is not necessary, not even after working out, or that strength training may increase flexibility.
Take a quick look in the gym and you see people who before touching any dumbbell, lie down on the mat to stretch the muscles while holding the position in place for some seconds. Then you have one person doing walking lunges and arms rotations before jumping into the treadmill. But you also have the one who skips stretching altogether.
In this messy stretching debate, what do we need to know? Do we need to stretch? Can stretching do more harm than good?
Motion is lotion
If there is something where experts seem to agree is on the disadvantages of doing static stretch before starting any workout. Studies show that this type of stretching decreases maximal force production.
This is because the contractile elements in the muscle and tendons should contract more rapidly and over an increased distance. Likewise, static stretching may affect the neurological system by decreasing the motor unit activation.
Pierre Barrieu, the strength and conditioning coach of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, explains, “When you start stretching muscle fibers, what lubricates them is heat, which comes from the warm-up. Stretching muscles cold can do more damage than good.”
While stretching a cold muscle is counterproductive, it’s not true about dynamic stretching, a series of whole body moves done in a rhythmic fashion way to elongate the muscles.
In a study from the Oregon State University, subjects were asked to do a light, 5-minute warm-up on the treadmill, followed by one of the stretch types: static, dynamic or no stretch at all. Then, they needed to perform some jump moves.
As expected, the study concludes that participants who did a general warm-up followed by a dynamic stretch did better in jump height, sprint speed and agility.
To Aaron Mattes, author of the book Active Isolated Stretching: The Mattes Method, dynamic stretching can be considered a warm-up when well performed.
“This form of stretching is what gets your blood pumping right from the get-go,” he writes.
Static Distress the Mind
After stretching the truth about the debate of static versus dynamic stretching, the question is: Does static stretching have any place in our workout routine?
Still, athletes and fitness aficionados swear by the benefits of performing static stretching to expedite the recovery process and to avoid injuries. Barrieu maintains that there is no proof that this statement is true, saying: “It has been proven in some cases that it helps some players mentally recover.”
However, a recent study published in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise Journal shows that static stretch training done after working out is effective in reducing exercise-induced muscle damage and that flexible muscles are less susceptible to the damage.
The static stretching debate is far from over, at least whether or not it helps to heal faster or to get better range of motion. One more thing to add to the mix is that another study concludes that short-term strength training increases flexibility even without the inclusion of additional stretching in the program.
The Bottom Line:
a) Do a light-warm up followed by dynamic stretching – Preferably, exercises that mimic the moves you will do in your routine or sports.
b) Leave the static stretch at the end of the workout – Either because you want to accelerate the muscle recovery (still to be totally acceptable by the experts) or to accelerate your “mental recovery.”
c) Lift weights – If keeping your flexibility is your worry or if you can barely squeeze a 20-minute workout in your exercise program, lift weights then. Just check that you lift the weights throughout the full range of motion.
Four Easy Moves
I, personally, believe in all above. I particularly love to perform these four static stretching moves (see slideshow) after running or after tough leg workout. It helps to cool off my body and my mind.
* Perform each exercise for 30 seconds to the point where you feel a mild discomfort. But do not push any further. It should not be painful.
* This is a static stretching routine, but try to perform the exercises in a rhythmic way, one after another while experiencing some relaxation not just in the muscle but in the overall body
* Breath rhythmically. When you stretch, you should never hold your breath.
Marta Montenegro inspires people to live healthy lives by giving them the tools and strength to find one’s inner athlete through her personal website MartaMontenegro.com. She created SOBeFiT, a national fitness magazine for men and women, and the Montenegro Method DVD workout series – a program she designed for getting results in just 21 days by exercising 21 minutes a day . Marta is a strength and conditioning coach and serves as an adjunct professor of exercise physiology at Florida International University.