There is a widespread belief that stretching prior to exercise improves performance, prevents injury, and boosts recovery time. But, believe it or not, this all-too-common pre-workout ritual may actually do more harm than good.
In fact, research shows that stretching before exercise can impair muscle strength and performance for up to 30 minutes. This holds especially true for static stretching, which is essentially the act of holding stretches to a point of mild discomfort for 30 seconds or more.
As an avid athlete, I personally never stretch before exercising as doing tends to make me feel a bit weak and unstable, especially on the days I run or lift weights.
And, as both an exercise scientist and clinical massage therapist, I’ve never been much of an advocate for static stretching in general, unless, of course, mental and/or physical relaxation are end goals. Indeed, such goals underscore the value of regularly engaging in stretching-based exercise formats like yoga and Tai Chi.
However, the notion that any form of stretching has beneficial effects on performance, muscle recovery or injury prevention is quite farfetched. So, if stretching is a normal part of your warm up routine, you may want to consider changing it up.
An ideal warm up is one that involves dynamic range of motion exercises targeting the larger muscle groups that’ll be used during your exercise session.
For instance, before engaging in a strength training session, perform planned exercises with relatively lighter weights in order to prepare your muscles for heavier lifts. Likewise, if you run, bike or swim, begin with low-intensity effort and than gradually increase your exercise intensity.
Now, this isn’t to say that stretching doesn’t have a place in your routine. It is certainly beneficial for maintaining normal joint range of motion. But, it’s always better to stretch after exercise when your muscles are nice and warm.
Consider performing full body stretches to cool down from cardiovascular exercise or to relax joints and muscles after a tough strength training session. In either case, slow and controlled static stretching may help to ease general muscle tightness, tension, and immediate feelings of muscle soreness.
Regularly engaging in yoga, Tai-Chi or similar stretching-based exercise classes come with added benefits including improved balance and posture, core stability, and stress relief.
But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that if your health and fitness goals are generally centered on weight loss and you have limited time to exercise, better to optimize your time by stretching less, and exercising more.