4 Reasons to Stop Stretching Before You Exercise


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
176 comments   :  269,007 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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    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
    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
  • 102
    Hi, Guys. I am a kids (and adults) karate instructor. For years, we did the usual you will see in most dojos. Warm up, static stretch, and work out. Maybe a cool down at the end. My husband, also my senior, did some research a few years ago and discovered that is not the best approach. It is better, especially for kids, to warm up and do dynamic stretches before a workout. If you are going to kick, do swing kicks. Do not take a pose and hold it! (static stretch) Static stretches are for warm to hot muscles at the end of a work out. Most of the dynamic stretches we use at the beginning of a workout also make a lovely warm up. So....yes to a stretch at the beginning of a workout, but not the type you may have been thinking of! - 4/24/2010   9:01:15 PM
  • 101
    I always warm up, then cool down after my exercise session, THEN stretch. Glad to know I'm doing it right! - 4/24/2010   8:13:42 PM
  • 100
    Cool. What a relief. I always felt guilty that I was "cutting out" the stretching part to get on with the workout. I used to tell myself that "circulatory" exercise (ie walking or arm swinging etc) before my workout was a proper warmup and congratulated myself for at least doing that - but felt guilty for skippin' the stretch. Yippee. No guilt there anymore. - 4/24/2010   8:00:27 PM
  • 99
    I will always warm up before I exercise and have cool down when I finish. I believe that you should not hurt as bad if do these. Thank you for sharing this interesting article. - 4/24/2010   7:14:53 PM
    I warm up first and stretch after - 4/24/2010   6:59:05 PM
  • 97
    I can testify to this one. I stretched my legs before a softball game a couple of years ago and didn't warm up properly. I tore both quadraceps in the third inning. - 4/24/2010   6:10:20 PM
  • 96
    It doesn't really matter to me which I do. When I walk, I don't stretch. My warm up is walking normally, then picking up the pace. My other exercises are usually videos/DVDs, so I do whatever the instructor is doing. I have no problems either way.

    This made me take note that I have a circuit training video from the 90's that does a warm-up then stretches; then I do a video on exercise.tv with Kendall Hogan and he does the same thing. And he's a modern day exercise instructor (I really like him, he's good).

    So, this is probably one of those situations where everyone is going to have a different opinion, and that's all well and good. Just do what works for you. - 4/24/2010   5:55:00 PM
  • CHUNK40
    I tend to skip stretching after a cooldown. while lifting weights I try to stretch each muscle after working it out. If I wait to the end of the whole workout I sometimes just want to get out of the gym and will skip the stretch. - 4/24/2010   5:14:06 PM
  • 94
    When I was going to Curves we were told not to stretch before doing the circuit but remember to do if afterwards. I have been doing this for at least the last 10 years. - 4/24/2010   5:11:20 PM
  • 93
    Wowsers. I did think about this one. It makes total sense. And it IS uncomfortable when muscles are cold.

    Awesomeness, we learn something new every day. :D - 4/24/2010   4:03:17 PM
  • 92
    WHOOPS, "OH NO MR BILL" I added this in favorites..Thanks - 4/24/2010   3:59:20 PM
  • 91
    I've had this same argument with my friends for years. I've told them it is not good to stretch cold muscles, but they never believe me. I need to send them a link to this article. Thanks! - 4/24/2010   3:24:57 PM
  • 90
  • JLF0744
    Makes sense. My exercise program, from the Arthritis Foundation, includes a warm-up and a cool-down... but the stretching is in the core program, not the warm-up. Never really thought about it before tho. - 4/24/2010   2:23:36 PM
    Thank you...this was new to me and very helpful.
    :o) - 4/24/2010   12:48:35 PM
    Great article and interesting, I warm up then do stretches before and after per my physical therapist advise. It is working for me. - 4/24/2010   12:47:14 PM
  • 86
    i tend to stretch after, unless of course i'm doing a pilates or yoga infused workout which tend to incorporate stretching throughout and feels really great. - 4/24/2010   12:12:44 PM
  • RENA1965
    I warm up, stretch and exercise then stretch again- cardio prepares legs to some extent and gets the heart rate up, but if I am doing a back or chest day it doesn't do jack for me.. I am exercising my legs another day, and am still going to be stiff as a board hitting the pull bar.. I do the exercise that crave the most energy output at the begining of my workout.. My rotators protest without stretches so I do a 2 set of 3 simple exercises for rotator warm up from a back injury site on the net- since then no aches or pains.. I agree with rajakitty totally about being tight- don't have to have a back injury to feel tight either.. I would rather keep being safe than feeling that ouch that makes me sorry.. - 4/24/2010   11:56:55 AM
  • 84
    The only thing I question about this is that I've been a dancer my whole life. If we didn't stretch out before performing kicks or leaps or splits, you felt it right away and you wouldn't be able to get as high in the kicks or the leaps because of how tight everything was. - 4/24/2010   11:35:15 AM
  • 83
    These things make sense when talking about the importance of not confusion stretching with warm-up or cool down. There are times when stretching without cardio can be done such as before getting out of bed in the morning or as part of a yoga routine. What is most important to learn how to not overstretch a muscle so as to avoid injury.
    Absolutes that involve words like "never" and "always" rarely turn out to be true. Nicole is not presenting absolutes here, just explaining reasons to adjust the way you think about your stretching routine. - 4/24/2010   11:19:43 AM
  • 82
    So basically what this post is saying is that some people do the wrong stretches at the wrong time before a work out and thus it's bad and everyone shouldn't do it?

    My physio therapist told me that I should always stretch before I start my work out, and the start of the work out is the warm up. Taking 5min to stretch before the warm up makes a huge difference in my work out. If I don't, I won't be able to work out at as high a level and I don't have as much endurance.

    Perhaps this post would have been better to describe when and how to stretch before a workout, because I remember reading articles on this site that suggests you stretch before and after working out and this post makes it seem very confusing. - 4/24/2010   11:09:10 AM
  • 81
    Like MELIRPP, I found when I was trying to learn to run that certain muscles bothered me more during my run if I didn't stretch them at the beginning than if I did. Maybe a full stretching set isn't necessary, but if I find that certain muscles bother me during certain types of workouts, I will continue to try stretching them before doing that activity. - 4/24/2010   11:01:54 AM
  • 80
    I feel pretty silly for venturing to comment on this, since I don't exactly fall into the ranks of an "ask the expert" on this topic. Will just say that in my earlier years, I played a lot of volleyball - coach always had us stretch first and it just didn't feel right. I've always felt more comfortable stretching after physical activity. Just seems to be common sense - glad to see Coach Nicole get this out there! - 4/24/2010   10:31:48 AM
  • 79
    This is one of the things that makes me nuts. I have been working out for YEARS. In addition, I've actually taken physical fitness classes. I have ALWAYS been told (by people with degrees in physical fitness) to do a short warm up (3-5 minutes), then to stretch, then to workout, then cool down, then stretch again.

    So why would they teach students to do stretching before a workout (but after a warm up) without the appropriate research to back it up? - 4/24/2010   10:19:20 AM
  • PRESHA911
    I stretch after my workouts. It's a good way to return my heart rate to normal and relax myself after vigorous activity. - 4/24/2010   10:14:49 AM
  • 77
    I stretch after I exercise and warm up prior to exercising. - 4/24/2010   10:04:32 AM

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