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4 Reasons to Stop Stretching Before You Exercise

By: , SparkPeople Blogger
4/23/2012 12:00 AM   :  152 comments   :  91,013 Views

By now, you probably know how important it is to warm up before you work out. Warming up prepares your body for the increased demands of physical activity, reducing your risk of injury and complications. Beyond sending more oxygen and blood flow to your muscles, a proper warm up also prepares you mentally for what's to come—a workout that may take concentration, coordination and a little motivation.

The one thing you shouldn't do at this time is the very thing that most people do: stretch. So why is stretching before a workout a bad idea?

Here are four reasons why you shouldn't stretch before you exercise.
  1. Stretching is not the same thing as warming up. Confusing stretching with warming up is an all-too-common mistake, so don't feel bad if you thought the two were one in the same. You should spend a few minutes doing lighter intensity activity that mimics your upcoming workout—walking before running, slow cycling before biking, light aerobics before a fitness class. That is a warm-up. It gives your body time to adjust to the higher demands of exercise so that your breathing rate, circulation and heart rate can all increase in order to supply your working muscles with the blood, nutrients and oxygen they need to keep things running smoothly. Warming up also helps lubricate your joints. Stretching does not serve the same purposes and therefore does not pass for a warm-up.
     
  2. Stretching before a workout undermines your warm up. If you are going to stretch before a work out, you need to warm up first, and then stop moving in order to stretch. Have you ever thought about how the act of stopping to stretch cancels out the benefits of warming up? Your body temperature, heart rate, and breathing rate all drop considerably once you stop moving. After a few stretches, you're practically back to where you started: with cold muscles and a resting heart rate that is not ready to jump into a work out. This is one of the biggest reasons I do not advocate stretching after a warm up session. However, if you were to warm up, stretch, and then warm up again, that might be OK. But who has the time for all that?
     
  3. Stretching does not prevent injury. It wasn't long ago that fitness experts used to say that stretching would prevent injury. That's part of the reason people were encouraged to stretch before physical activity. But research has not been able to prove this theory. These days, it's generally accepted among fitness trainers, athletic trainers and physical therapists that the act of stretching does not prevent injury, no matter when you do it. According to a recent story by AP medical writer Maria Cheng, CDC experts who reviewed more than 100 stretching studies found that "people who stretched before exercise were no less likely to suffer injuries such as a pulled muscle, which the increased flexibility from stretching is supposed to prevent." So if you have been stretching before your workouts in an effort to prevent a sprain or strain, your efforts might be in vain.
     
  4. Stretching before exercise may actually increase your risk of injury. That's not just because it undermines your warm up. "Traditional stretches, like when people bend over to touch their toes or stretch their legs on a fence," wrote Cheng, "often cause the muscles to tighten rather than relax—exactly the opposite of what is needed for physical activity." Your risk of overstretching at this time is greater, and this tightness can undermine your speed and range of motion when you start exercising. Some research has shown that certain athletes who stretch are more susceptible to injuries and performance problems. Experts theorize that a certain amount of "tightness" is needed for muscle strength and power in certain sports, such as throwing a fastball or kicking a soccer ball.
This is not a campaign against stretching. I firmly believe that most people benefit greatly from stretching and don't do it enough. But it should be done at the right time and not pushed to the limits. Most research shows us that those who are most likely to suffer injuries are people on the opposite ends of the bell curve; the least flexible people—and the most flexible—are more prone to injuries and problems. That's good news for your average exerciser because you don't need to t urn into a human Gumby to stay injury-free. A normal range of flexibility, often called a "functional range of motion" can help decrease muscle tightness and keep yourself active, mobile and capable even as you age, when flexibility naturally takes a decline.

So when is the best time to stretch? (And yes, you should stretch!) If you haven't guessed it yet, it's at the end of your workout, right after your cool down. Your muscles and joints are much warmer and lubricated after a workout than they are before one (even if you warm up), which means you'll get more out of your stretches at this time. And because your body is returning to a relaxed state, stretching after exercise is simply a feel-good way to end your workout.

Overall, we should all aim to stretch regularly. It may take a little effort to change your habit of stretching before exercise, but the benefits and reduced risks are probably well worth it.

Do you prefer to stretch before or after your workout? Do you agree with these recommendations? Will you change your stretching routine after reading this?

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Comments

  • 152
    I am certainly no expert, so I can't say that the recommendations given in this article are wrong or right. What I can say is that for me, working out doesn't go well if I don't stretch before (even if I do warm up).

    For me, stretching before the warm up loosens me up. It makes it easier for me to bend and move, and I feel better as I begin the warm-ups after I stretch. I also probably overdo it according to this article. I stretch before, during and after my workouts. However, I find that I rarely get sore (even after very intense workouts), I'm able to complete my workouts with more energy and my joints don't suffer in cold weather as much anymore. Yes, my heart rate goes down but I look at it like this: On the treadmill I gradually increase my incline and speed until I'm at that max I can take (5.0 incline and 3.4 mph). When I go straight through from start to finish without stopping to stretch, I don't burn as many calories. Why? Because I start to feel stiffer and stiffer the longer I go. Then I'm super sore and dead tired at the end so that I can't do anything else. I can barely drag myself upstairs to take a shower and I'm too stiff to stretch. When I take short breaks to hydrate and stretch, I can go for longer, I burn more calories and I'm energized at the end. Then I can go on to do my strength training, yoga and end stretching. I'm also energized (and not sore) for the rest of the day.

    That's a big difference for me, and I obviously know which one feels better. At the end of the day, the condition of my body and the calories burned are the most important things. When I stretch as I normally do (beginning, middle, end) I burn more calories and have more energy to complete the entire workout as well as energy for the rest of the day. When I don't stretch until after...I can barely stretch at all. I think stretching is something that varies for each person. Some people may be better served stretching only at the end while others may be better off stretching before and / or during. We must all do what feels best for our bodies. So I'll continue with my normal routine unless something starts to feel "off." I'll let my body tell me what's best. - 11/11/2013   9:10:05 PM
  • MARIUM2K
    151
    Thanks for this article! - 10/1/2013   9:15:29 AM
  • 150
    I totally agree! - 9/16/2013   4:21:09 AM
  • 149
    Good article, I now know proper warming up is to mimic the activity I am about to do before exercise to get my body ready for an intense workout. I do still stretch in order to help out with my flexibility and general well being, however, I do it separately from my exercise sessions. I use it as part of my Yoga sessions~ - 6/22/2013   6:11:09 PM
  • 148
    It's interesting that when I first registered on SP, stretching between the warm up and the workout was recommended.
    I never liked "interruptions" but did stretch to prevent injuries.
    My fiance always insists that I do it, too.
    I'm happy I can skip the "interruption" after the warm up tonight thanks to this blog post:) - 4/18/2013   4:42:58 AM
  • VIJJIRAJ3
    147
    I do treadmill before i will walk on it for 4 minutes and will run for 10 to 15 minutes and will do weights and elliptical,cycling,stepping.Will go home is this correct,even no difference in my weight will do this daily more than an hour - 4/18/2013   2:08:01 AM
  • 146
    Learned a lot in the comments about static & dynamic stretches. I agree with those of you who are of the opinion that one's stretchin routine depends on the sport/activity in which one participating. Personally, I abhor stretching before working out (I'm a runner). I usually just start off with a light jog & that gets me going. When I strength train it's the same story, light cardio then I move into my strength routine for that day. Ironically, I love to stretch and I love yoga. I just rarely experience any particular benefit in sequentially combining stretch with my workouts. - 4/4/2013   5:34:10 PM
  • 145
    As a former gymnast and dancer, I really am a huge fan of stretching. I'm 43 years old now and value my flexibility greatly. I can still do the splits on both sides and I can still put both legs behind my head.

    I'm one of those people that will allow a lot of time for stretching. There are times when I go to the gym and if I haven't worked out in awhile and my muscles are all cold and stiff, I will start by stretching. But I really pay attention to my body. I will spend about a half hour stretching and I will warm my body up through stretching. I feel like I get the blood back into my muscles by gently stretching and waking them back up again. My stretching is like a very slow dance.

    But even if I start my workout with a slow warm up stretch, I always end my workout with a stretch that is intended to work on my flexibility. After I am all warm from my work out, I want to really take my stretching to the limit.

    My new thing is stretching in the steam sauna. Some times I do this before my work out, some times I do it after. For me it is absolutely amazing.

    It really helps on the days that I feel resistant to exercising. I'll stretch in the steam sauna first, usually for about a half hour. I bring a 32 oz bottle of ice cold water in there with me too so I don't get dehydrated. Then after that, I am really warm and ready to work out.

    Or I will stretch in the steam sauna after my work out and I will do some really deep stretches slowly for about 30 minutes. The heat gets so deep in my muscles and I'm able to stretch deeper than if I were stretching outside the sauna.

    Being flexible really makes me feel really young. I still enjoy fun activities such as rollerblading, trapeze and aerial silks, and being flexible really helps with these activities.

    I want to still be able to do the splits at 90.

    - 8/13/2010   10:34:40 AM
  • TESS_O_LANDS
    144
    Totally disagree. - 8/13/2010   10:21:25 AM
  • 143
    helpful information! I usually do yoga and stretching in the morning for 45 minutes and 30-35 minutes walking in the evening. with my health condition I can not do more exercises. should I club both together? - 8/13/2010   10:08:30 AM
  • 142
    Yes i have seen, Nicole (I am big fan of her) doing stretches at the end of each 10 min workout routine. Frankly i just followed her just lke that but now after reading this article i know why she does so... it is amazing... muscles streches much more after workout than before....

    God Job Nicole... Thanks Ton - 5/10/2010   4:00:53 AM
  • 141
    Since I have been going to the gym I am doing better with stretching after my workouts I feel much better when I do the stretching - 5/7/2010   7:03:28 PM
  • JENNISGRAN
    140
    Unless I missed it, doesn't anyone walk for exercise? And what kind of warm up should I do before walking 3 or 4 miles? I always stretched my leg, ankle, thigh muscles. Now I am baffled. Help. - 5/2/2010   1:48:54 PM
  • 139
    I don't know if this is good information, but I was told that as a runner I should only stretch certain muscles, and then only after a warm-up. This is because there are supposedly studies showing that runners who stretch more end up with more injuries than non-stretchers.

    Interesting. - 4/30/2010   11:21:16 AM
  • 138
    Good point. I need to do better about stretching after. - 4/30/2010   9:55:20 AM
  • ACLASSYONE
    137
    Good to know. I've never been a stretcher(pre-workout), I just start my workout and take it easy at first. After a few minutes, I kick it up. When I am done I stretch if I remember. - 4/30/2010   9:25:59 AM
  • 136
    I never realized this. I guess I assumed stretching and warming up were the same thing. Thanks for the article!! - 4/30/2010   8:53:19 AM
  • 135
    The type of exercise is very important. You can't make a summary generalization about stretching in every athletic event.

    On the issue of martial arts, Genkidesu is absolutely correct. I was in Aikido for years, and we always stretched at the beginning of each session; not stretching actually had the greater potential for injury. (Yes, there is some debate about the potential injury caused by dynamic streching vs static stretching. But, personally speaking, I never saw the harm firsthand and the benefits were obvious.)

    Flash forward ten years later, and I'm now running. I don't stretch at all beforehand; I tried that a few months ago, gave myself a few injuries, and said "screw that." But the warmups are absolutely essential. All of my stretching, dynamic and static, now follows after I'm off the treadmill. - 4/29/2010   5:54:38 PM
  • 134
    As an average normal exerciser that this article is aimed at, I agree wtih stretching afterwards. My body is warmed up and I feel more limber in my movements. If I try to stretch first, I do not get the same range of motion or depth into my stretches as I do at the end of my workout!

    My fellow walkers/runners who stretch before our walks/run are stiff and look to be in pain while doing a pre-workout stretch. They are also the ones who start off gung-ho without allowing themselves a proper warm up time in the begining of our workouts.

    To each his own when it comes to this area. It is 2010 and times have changed. The things we understand now about our bodies is very different from 5, 10, 20 years ago!

    Relax people and be open to learning different and new ideas. - 4/29/2010   11:14:17 AM
  • 133
    Sorry, but as a martial artist, I'm not buying it.

    For one thing, this article makes no attempt to differentiate between static and dynamic stretching - a big faux pas in my book. There IS a difference.

    I've been involved in the martial arts for many years. We always warm up first with running, obstacle jumping, fast air-punches, vigorous jumping jacks, etc. before a session, but I and many others know first-hand the dangers of attempting explosive high kicks at the expected "normal" limits of one's range of leg motion without also doing sufficient dynamic stretching interspersed with the "warm-up" as well to ensure one CAN reach that "normal" limit on that day without risk of injury (groin muscle pulls are THE WORST, bar none.) Every single pulled muscle I've had came on days that Sensei for some reason skipped the dynamic stretching (even though we still did the cardio-intense warm-up).

    Static stretches on the other hand, are great for the cool-down period after a session, and do seem to help expand one's range of stretch for the future.

    To add: I don't think enough people realize the value of consciously relaxing the muscles as one carefully stretches after exercise. It makes a difference! - 4/29/2010   4:51:23 AM
  • 132
    I'm not convinced the science on this is as set as this blog implies.

    I also think it depends what sort of activity you're planning to do. "Normal" cardio or weight lifting, I tend to just do a warm up before, and then stretch after cooldown.

    However, if I don't do some light stretches before my warm up for dance or gymnastics, I notice a difference. They're much easier to do with some stretching before hand (better range of motion). I also always stretch after these activities as well. Maybe these are examples of a specialized situation that isn't covered by the research the blog is based on?
    - 4/28/2010   5:57:48 PM
  • MAKELE
    131
    I've heard about doing 'dynamic stretches' before a work out, ie stretches with movement to loosen up joints, eg arm crosses where you are swinging your arms and criss crossing them in front of you. Do these qualify as a warm up, or are they the same as regular stretches? - 4/27/2010   11:49:28 AM
  • 130
    I've always believed in stretching before exercise. - 4/27/2010   9:36:30 AM
  • 129
    Nope, don't have to change a thing. I warm up, exercise, cool down and stretch. Actually, another of my favorite times to stretch is right after I am out of the shower. I can stretch farther and longer than any other time. - 4/26/2010   10:15:47 PM
  • 128
    Flexibility training should be done separately from your other workouts, following a good warm up of 10-20 minutes :) To often people thinking "stretching" (no matter when you do it) is enough. It is not. I personally aim for at least 3 training sessions of 30-45 minutes strictly for flexibility training. I am not talking about extreme yoga but basic stretches :) hmmmm this sounds like a good blog entry idea...

    Happy flexibility y'all!

    Jenn - 4/26/2010   10:05:13 PM
  • KEAL48
    127
    What I like to do is do some sort of warm up activity like riding the bike for 5 min. Then I do some quick stretches. After I complete my exercise I stretch more muscles and hold the stretches for longer. By doing it this way I loosen up my muscles before I workout and get the benefit from stretching afterwards. - 4/26/2010   7:48:32 PM
  • SG4INFO
    126
    After a workout is usually when my body naturally wants to stretch anyways. I never really thought about it--so I guess I will keep doing it that way. I do yoga 2X week. what about stretching before that? - 4/26/2010   5:30:45 PM
  • VELATAY
    125
    may i say that it definatly depends on what sport u do...im a cheerleader and streaching is a big part of flexability...and without that id be a pretty bad cheerleader :P but, hears food for thought... what i do is 1. streach 2. warm up 3. a cupple of streaches for no more then a minuit according to what move im practacing.... im still pumping from the warm up but my body needs to have tighter muscles for the more 'strength' related moves (i.e. baseing lifts)

    sorry but i aint gonna change this since it works for me... but i do understand the 'tight muscles' problem...especially with running ect... :) - 4/26/2010   1:48:17 PM
  • 124
    I'm SO glad this was put out there. I'm an avid runner & everybody (including my running groups) stretches before they run. If I stretch before I run, I cramp up & my muscles hurt. I thought it was something wrong with me! I never stretch before a run, but I always warm up, run, cool down...and THEN stretch...and it feels so good after a long run! :) - 4/26/2010   1:02:34 PM
  • 123
    This is a difficult concept for me to grasp. I've spent 26 years in the military and it has been stressed through the years to stretch before and after the workout. Every military school I attended that had an organized physical fittness program had us stretch in formation before the exercise, be it a formation run or some other organized events. I will have difficulty with trying to change that mindset. - 4/26/2010   12:54:19 PM
  • 122
    I would have agreed with this article in my 20s. Now at age 39, I need to stretch before biking or doing the elliptical. Otherwise I risk serious pain that prevents me from working out. I warm up, stretch, and work out, cool down, and stretch again. - 4/26/2010   12:23:04 PM
  • TIME2WORKIT
    121
    I know that stretching AFTER your workout is so important and ofcourse warming up rather than jumping right in, but I have to tell you, if I do not stretch out my muscles a little before walking, they tighten up so fast! It is nothing big but a few stretches to loosen up a little before my walk sure helps me. Ofcourse, I do that BEFORE I warm up, so it does not stop that process. I guess we all have to listen to our bodies and do what works for us... Probably why opinions from experts seem to flip-flop ALL THE TIME! - 4/26/2010   10:41:07 AM
  • 120
    I got to say I don't really agree with this article at all. Has anyone ever played sports? I mean even in track and field we did 2 warmup laps, and then did multiple stretches. I was a wrestler and a football player, even in college we warmup and then stretch. In the beginning when run, what if your muscles are tight? or your sore? You never stretch standing up anyway. always stretch sitting down, especially when stretching your legs. Trust me you risk injury if you dont stretch first. I don't think this article is correct at all, giving people info. like that. Ask people who are or were athletes and they will tell you the samething I just did. - 4/26/2010   7:31:10 AM
  • 119
    My old as dirt PE teacher always had us do warm up exercises on the floor, then walk to the track and stretch before we began our workout. So glad to know I've been doing it wrong for 45 years! - 4/26/2010   2:37:23 AM
  • 118
    Hmmm...When I run around my neighborhood I stretch a good 10 minutes and then bolt out the door. I find that my legs ache right away but then 10 minutes into the run they get better. When I drive to a nearby lake and warm up by walking 5 minutes and THEN turn into a run I've always had a better run.

    I always thought it was because the trail was easier to run on than the road but maybe it's the difference of stretching vs. truely warming up? I think I will change my neighborhood routine and see what the difference is... - 4/25/2010   10:02:59 PM
  • 117
    I always say think of your muscle like silly puddy. If you just take it out of the egg and stretch it all cold its snaps right in half. But if you rub it in your hands a bit and then give it a stretch it goes on forever....same principles apply to the muscle. Great article thanks! - 4/25/2010   9:45:17 PM
  • CHECHECARINA
    116
    I think that this also depends on the kind of exercise, and your own body. (skip to the last paragraph if you don't want to read this whole thing).

    Case in point, I wake up early 3 days a week to go running in Seoul, Korea, a land composed almost completely of concrete hills. There are no running tracks of nice cut up rubbery whatever the heck you call it, crazy drivers everywhere, and the entire country is built on a slope. As such, even with rest days (I never run two days in a row), walking intervals, 5 minute warm ups, 10 to 15 minutes of stretching after every run, and shoes WITH orthotics, I still became best friends with an Ice pack. Sore knees, sore arches, sore IT band - I had almost every single common running injury in the book. Luckily, by adding distance VERY slowly, I got to know my body pretty well. I now know, for example, that I have extremely tight hip flexors, quads, and IT band on the right side - and that no matter how good the warm up, if I don't stretch these out before running, I will pay for it the next day (or even the same day, several hours later). I think that part of this is because these muscles/tendons don't ever reach full extension during the exercise itself, so they never get the chance to stretch out fully. (Ever looked up stretches for an IT band? It's like listening to a game of twister... Place right foot behind left at approximately a 75 degree angle with the left foot facing the north polar cap and the right foot making the same angle with the Q angle as the phase of the moon times ten divided by... okay, so its not THAT hard, but you get the drift.) At the same time, even though they don't reach full extension, if these muscles aren't flexible, you can wind up with some pretty scary injuries (runner's knee is essentially your knee cap getting pulled off of its track. Yeah. Think about that for a while.)

    Part of stretching is also knowing HOW to stretch. A lot of people push themselves into the stretch into where it is quite uncomfortable or even painful. That is an excellent way to tear a muscle. I prefer the "yoga" style - stretch till its a little bit uncomfortable, wait till its comfortable, breathe out into a little bit deeper of a stretch, wait until that's comfortable, repeat. I find that I can get a very deep, yet relaxed stretch this way. Before running, I only stretch the muscles that I know get overly tight. After running, I do the entire lower body with a stopwatch, making sure that each muscle gets at least 30 seconds.

    The other days, I wake up to strength train - core exercises, push-ups, squats, and now quad/thigh exercises to help minimize my chances of injury. While doing these, I don't really have to stretch before hand, just a couple of light sets before to get the muscle fully warmed up. Afterwards, though, it's important to stretch, because adding muscle without stretching will VERY quickly cut your flexibility in half. After just three weeks of being lazy and not stretching after muscle work (before I starting running), I went from being able to get my palms flat on the floor in a forward bend to not being able to touch my toes :S

    So, in summary -
    1.) Always warm up well.
    2.) Take your time when starting to exercise, adding mileage, distance, weight, whatever so that you know the idiosyncrasies of your own body. Everyone has at least one muscle imbalance, tight muscle, or structural issue somewhere.
    3.) Experiment with your own workouts to find what's comfortable for you.
    - 4/25/2010   9:25:05 PM
  • TLGRNT
    115
    I am a huge advocate of the warm-up, exercise, cool-down and stretch philosophy, to me it just makes sense. - 4/25/2010   8:24:20 PM
  • 114
    I am so relieved! I have always warmed up, exercised, cooled down then stretched. The last week or so I started thinking I needed to stretch before I started. I am so happy to know that is not true. - 4/25/2010   5:28:05 PM
  • 113
    Before
    No
    No - 4/25/2010   4:55:39 PM
  • 112
    Boy did I have this wrong! I have been stretching before and after running. I thought the stretching before was like my warm-up. I am so glad I have not been injured. I have read more and more about the virtues of warming up before exercise and I am switching immediately. Thank you for a great article. - 4/25/2010   2:03:57 PM
  • 111
    Glad you wrote this because most people don't know that you should warm up and not stretch before exercise. I don't stretch before I run- usually after if at all. I do yoga every now and then if I need to stretch. - 4/25/2010   1:43:26 PM
  • JEANIEBOB
    110
    interesting - 4/25/2010   1:26:52 PM
  • 109
    I generally agree with strecthing after the workout, but I have one question. When doing yoga, which to me is one big series of stretches, what should you do before beginning your yoga workout?
    - 4/25/2010   12:59:54 PM
  • 108
    Since I've been doing the 30 Day Shred, I always stretch AFTER the workout. I agree, it is relaxing and a nice cool down. - 4/25/2010   12:09:44 PM
  • 107
    I've believed this for a long time, and it's nice to finally hear an expert agree with me! - 4/25/2010   10:41:26 AM
  • 106
    I think it depends on the sport you do whether you should stretch after warm-up or not. I do taekwondo, and if you don't stretch after warm-up you will get injured or pull a muscle more easily. Especially as I have gotten older I've noticed that stretching is very important in connection with taekwondo. However, I don't stretch before exercise when doing strength training or running. - 4/25/2010   10:37:37 AM
  • 105
    I know stretching is important, and I always remember I should do it , but at the end of my workouts I forget to do it. I will work in that - 4/24/2010   10:35:27 PM
  • 104
    Guess I'm safe after all. I rarely stretch before exercising. - 4/24/2010   10:22:56 PM
  • AIRONZ
    103
    It honestly depends on the workout I do. If I run I usually warm-up, stretch, warm-up, run, cool-down, then stretch again. I know it seems like a lot but if you think about it you don't have to stretch your entire body when you run just your legs, for they are the ones being worked. On the other hand if I am doing strength training I warm up, immediately go into my workout and between reps I stretch the muscles I'm using. I find its a great way to get the stretch you need and have an appropriate time elapse before you go onto your next set. - 4/24/2010   9:08:54 PM

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