4 Reasons to Stop Stretching Before You Exercise

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By: , SparkPeople Blogger
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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

  • 138
    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
  • 137
    Good point. I need to do better about stretching after. - 4/30/2010   9:55:20 AM
  • ACLASSYONE
    136
    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
  • 135
    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
  • 134
    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
  • 133
    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
  • 132
    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
  • 131
    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
    130
    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
  • 129
    I've always believed in stretching before exercise. - 4/27/2010   9:36:30 AM
  • 128
    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
  • 127
    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
    126
    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
    125
    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
    124
    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
  • 123
    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
  • 122
    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
  • 121
    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
    120
    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
  • 119
    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
  • 118
    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
  • 117
    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
  • 116
    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
    115
    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
    114
    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
  • 113
    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
  • 112
    Before
    No
    No - 4/25/2010   4:55:39 PM
  • 111
    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
  • 110
    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
    109
    interesting - 4/25/2010   1:26:52 PM
  • 108
    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
  • 107
    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
  • 106
    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
  • 105
    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
  • 104
    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
  • 103
    Guess I'm safe after all. I rarely stretch before exercising. - 4/24/2010   10:22:56 PM
  • AIRONZ
    102
    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
  • 101
    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
  • 100
    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
  • 99
    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
  • 98
    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
  • JUHOEG
    97
    I warm up first and stretch after - 4/24/2010   6:59:05 PM
  • 96
    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
  • 95
    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
    94
    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
  • 93
    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
  • 92
    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
  • 91
    WHOOPS, "OH NO MR BILL" I added this in favorites..Thanks - 4/24/2010   3:59:20 PM
  • 90
    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
  • 89

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