Stretching Before a Workout
There is no doubt that there are a wide range of opinions and ideas surrounding the topic of pre-workout stretching. Some athletes swear by the idea of a full warm-up with a good stretch session before every workout, and then there are bodybuilders and trainers who believe that no matter what type of exercise you are performing, you receive enough stretching while completing an exercise itself.
For example, if I was to be working out my legs with some squats or leg presses, the actual motions carried forth while completing a squat is actually stretching the muscle as I work it.
A study was completed by David A. Lally, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. He studied marathon runners and the effects pre-workout stretching had on their bodies. I am sure you could google his full study, but for this blog, I will summarize his results. He actually found that for the most part stretching had little to no effect on preventing injury before a marathon for his test subjects. In fact, Caucasian males actually had a greater risk of injury if they stretched pre-run. He concluded that there were no benefits to stretching before a workout.
My own personal opinion on the matter is that I feel much better beginning a workout, whether it be cardio training or resistance training, after I have completed at least a 5-10 min. warm-up consisting of mild cardio, and then some static and ballistic stretching.
Static stretching is stretching a muscle in a held position. This is the type of stretching most people think of when they hear 'stretching'. As example of a static stretch would be a hamstring forward-bend stretch where you are reaching to touch your toes, held for 15-20 seconds.
Ballistic stretching is stretching with movement. Whether it be jogging while kicking yourself in the butt (stretching the thighs) or swinging your arms open and closed to hug yourself (stretching chest and back).
Once I have completed some light warm-up and a bit of a stretch, my muscles are more open for blood flow and slightly warm to head into exercise. Also try exercise-specific ballistic stretching to prepare. For example, if you are going to be playing soccer, you may want to do some walking lunges or deep prayer squats. This creates a much more efficient warm-up and stretch of those leg muscles to prepare for the desired activity.
Stretching During a Workout
A coworker of mine mentioned to me at how he was doing leg presses at the gym, where he had completed a few sets, and went back for one more set and felt that his hamstring had been pulled. But the weird thing was, it was as though he had pulled it while getting back into position for the movement rather than the movement itself. I told him I felt as though he may have left too much time in between sets and allowed his muscles to get tight and cold.
It is of best interest to keep your body active and warm even in between sets of resistance, or between sets if you are completing an interval-style cardio workout. There are many advantages to keeping your body moving and doing mild ballistic stretching in between sets.
Circuit training is so efficient for this as you may do some bicep curls, then go and do tricep presses, then a leg press, then back to the bicep curls. While following a circuit style of training, you are able to stay warm in between sets on a specific muscle group, but are able to workout different muscle groups while resting the one(s) you just blasted.
Keeping your heart rate up with mild ballistic stretching in between sets allows you heart rate to stay up at a decent level, keeping your body and muscles warm so that your muscles stay flexible preventing injury. One major bonus to between-set ballistic stretching is that your blood can then clean up and carry away all of that lactic acid bath buildup in your muscles and allows you to be rested and ready to hit another set with intensity!
Stretching After a Workout
I would say that stretching after a workout is far more beneficial than stretching before. You want to begin your cool down with some ballistic stretching, however, so that you can start to bring your heart rate down. Ballistic stretching is great in this regard as you are able to keep moving at a reduced pace to your workout, yet stretching at the same time. Once your heart rate has come down to a reasonable level, you can begin to really focus on some stretching of your main muscle groups with some static stretching like toe touches, etc. Do not hold static stretches for too long however, as you want to try and stretch your whole body while your blood is still pumping at a decent level to clean away all of that lactic acid buildup.
After a workout, muscles are often fairly tight - and in some cases are even close to going into a spasm - after a very strenuous workout ends. At that point, stretching is a fine way to transform a hypercontracted muscle into a relaxed collection of fibres which can comfortably adapt to the more passive activities which follow a training session.
Stretching as a Workout
Now we have already discussed at how stretching should be completed before and after cardio and resistance workouts, but what about a nice long stretch as a workout!
Yoga is a great example of this. With yoga, you are able to get the body really warm and active while maintaining good form and stretching all of those muscles, ligaments and connective tissues, strengthening yet stretching at the same time to increase blood flow.
A full-body stretch is great to complete at least once a week, especially if you are working the rest of your body so strenuously. This allows your body to really open up and increase blood flow to all muscle groups to allow them to repair and rebuild.
Here are a list of benefits from regular stretching:
Increased flexibility and better range of motion of your joints - Flexible muscles can improve your daily performance. Tasks such as lifting packages, bending to tie your shoes or hurrying to catch a bus become easier and less tiring. Flexibility tends to diminish as you get older, but you can regain and maintain it.
Improved circulation - Stretching increases blood flow to your muscles. Blood flowing to your muscles brings nourishment and gets rid of waste byproducts in the muscle tissue. Improved circulation can help shorten your recovery time if you've had any muscle injuries.
Better posture - Frequent stretching can help keep your muscles from getting tight, allowing you to maintain proper posture. Good posture can minimize discomfort and keep aches and pains at a minimum.
Stress relief - Stretching relaxes tight, tense muscles that often accompany stress.
Better Balance - Maintaining the full range of motion through your joints keeps you in better balance. Coordination and balance will help keep you mobile and less prone to injury from falls, especially as you get older.