Many have grown up with the understanding that, whenever you’re about to work out, compete or otherwise push your body, it’s important to stretch immediately before the activity in order to prevent injury and to perform your best.
Yet, despite these long-held beliefs, Palmer physical therapist Anne Thomas says – perhaps surprisingly – that there’s little evidence to support this theory.
“Today’s evidence suggests that there’s no connection between injury prevention and stretching – static, or reach-and-hold-type stretching – before a workout,” said Thomas, owner of Body In Balance Physical Therapy in Palmer. “Performance-wise, there’s also no consistent connection, with some studies even suggestions that stretching before an activity or competition can actually weaken performance.”
For example, research released by Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in 2011 found that the vertical jump heights of young and middle-aged men actually declined when participants stretched beforehand. In contrast, the same study found heights increased after warming up dynamically, or using dynamic stretching.
“Dynamic stretches can best be described as a lower-intensity version of the exercises and movements you plan to perform during your activities or while you’re competing,” Thomas said. “A light jog, some leg swings, lunges, high-knees, arm and shoulder rotations … all these movements can be part of a dynamic stretching routine, depending on the activity you’re about to do.”
Such dynamic warm-ups help you break a sweat, sure, but it does so much more. According to Thomas, dynamic stretching ensures your muscles are well-supplied with oxygen, promoting optimal flexibility and efficiency.
Dynamic stretching, however, can only optimize your current level of flexibility. Static stretching is still vital in maintaining and improving your body’s level of overall flexibility … just not right before an activity.
So, when’s the ideal time to maintain and improve flexibility through static stretching? Thomas offers the following guidelines:
Just as you should try to get a certain amount of exercise in each day – both cardio and strength training – it’s also important to dedicate 10 to 15 minutes to daily static stretching. Typical static stretches are held for anywhere between 15 to 60 seconds at a time, with each movement repeated two or more times.
Thomas suggests setting time aside for stretching either first-thing in the morning or just before going to bed.
Stretch During Cool-Downs
Cooling down after an activity helps the body transition from a higher intensity to a resting or near-resting state. While slowed-down exercises (similar to those during dynamic warm-ups) may be included as part of a cool-down, this is also a great time for static stretching.
As consistent tightness in the muscles and joints can put one more at risk of pain and injury, Thomas suggests those who regularly exercise or compete have an annual physical therapy exam. During a PT exam, weaknesses in flexibility, strength and movement can be identified and properly addressed before they manifest into injuries.