I imagine it may be different for different types of "stretches".
Mild stretching within your natural comfortable movement range like the type you might naturally do when you wake up or after sitting at a desk for a while is probably fine. Similar to what a dog or cat will do when they wake from a nap--they are not extending past what is normal and comfortable then holding the stretch for 30 seconds, right?
As others mentioned, "static stretching" where you are stretching to the limits of your flexibility and holding the stretch for a while, say 30 seconds (or whatever)... That is generally recommended only after you are well warmed up these days. Of course, some dance instructors and others, well it seems like they haven't got that memo yet. So I always walk before a dance or yoga class to make sure I am warm. Oh, my dr. also seems to have not gotten the memo. She prescribed me with static stretches to help with an injury but gave no advice about warming up first in fact she suggested doing them in the morning and at night. So not everyone shares this recent advice. I did warm up anyway as to me that makes better sense--I know I get better quality stretching in after a workout. When I started to see the physical therapist my dr referred me to, he didn't prescribe any static stretches but some mild dynamic stretches and strengthening exercises.
But I will do mild stretches throughout the day when I feel stiff--these probably do little or nothing to improve my flexibility but they feel nice and prevent stiffness--I think that is what Spark was suggesting in the morning.
There are some types of "stretching" or mobility work that can be done in a warmup. I.E. dynamic stretches and flowing stretches where you are flowing or moving through a range of motion. So thinks like flowing yoga, tai chi, dynamic stretches may be okay on their own or after a warmup. In my warmups I often do "joint mobility" exercises--these are not really stretching but related to flexibility. You do exercises that move your joints through their natural movement range--I am not sure I explained that right. But ankle circles, shoulder circles, etc. A lot of workouts recently include these in the warmup and I started doing them for other activities as they seem to help. I am not sure if I consider joint mobility exercises to be stretches though, but they are related to mobility/flexibility.
Like M@L said, it depends on what you're doing. Stretching to increase flexibility should be done after warming up/working out, as when the muscles are warm they can stretch more easily, thus reducing the risk of injury. However, gentle shoulder rolls, hip circles, leg raises, etc. can help relieve stiffness from lying in one place for too long, and are something you could do first thing in the morning.
I always walk to warm up before working out and I stretch afterward. That's the way I was taught so that's the way I've always done it. I've found that if I forget to stretch after I get really tight. Besides that all the workout videos I've ever seen have stretched after, not before.
Stretching is one area of exercise research that has progressed rapidly over the past 10 years, and has overturned previously accepted wisdom.
It used to be a staple of exercise advice to stretch before a workout, but recent research has come out strongly supporting that you should NOT stretch cold muscles.
But it depends also on what is meant by "stretching". Certainly you should avoid tight stretches soon after waking up. But more gentle movements that avoid tight stretches can help promote blood flow and be a good way to warm up the muscles.
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WHIMSICALSPRITE : Here is a good article from WebMD about that very question:
"Should You Stretch Before Exercise?"
"Not necessarily. There is not substantial evidence that stretching before exercise lowers risk of injury, decreases muscle soreness after exercise, or improves your performance. Although some studies show that stretching before exercise produces all of these benefits, there are just as many -- or perhaps more -- that say otherwise."
"Static stretching before exercise has actually weakened performance, such as sprint speed, in studies. The most likely reason is that the muscles become fatigued from holding the stretch."
However, the article does give several instances of where stretching should be done. It is a good article with, I feel, many important points about stretching and not stretching, depending on the situation.
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I've read on SP that stretching is best done at the end of a workout, while your muscles are warm to avoid straining them.
However, I just read ANOTHER SP article, which suggested stretching when waking up in the morning (as a Fast Break strategy for Fitness). This conflicts the earlier advice of saying to only stretch when your muscles are warm.
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