Fact v. Fiction: To Prevent Injury, Always Stretch Before a Workout
Fiction. Flexibility is a vital component of a well-rounded fitness program, and while most of us know that it is important to stretch, many exercisers are still confused about the best time to loosen up their muscles.
Elementary school physical education classes taught us to always stretch before exercise in order to prevent injuries. However, recent research has found that this is not the case. In fact, adopting the static stretching approach (holding a stretch in one position without movement) before exercise can be dangerous, as stretching muscles before they are completely warmed can lead to muscle strains and pulls. Doing static stretches before exercise may also hinder physical performance during activity, and research has shown that pre-exercise static stretching does not prevent injury, nor does it provide any additional protection from muscle soreness.
Some exercisers opt to incorporate stretching at the end of a brief warm-up period. But this practice can be counterproductive, as stretching during the conclusion of the warm-up will cause your heart rate to drop prior to the start of the conditioning segment of your workout.
Consequently, the best time to perform static stretches tends to be at the end of a gym session. Static stretching should be included as part of the cool-down because it is safer and more effective to stretch muscles that are properly warmed and therefore more pliable. When performed after activity, this type of stretching can help to improve posture and flexibility and also reduce stress.
So what should you do at the beginning of your workout? Researchers are finding that an active, dynamic warm-up is a safer and more effective way to prepare the body for activity. Dynamic stretching, which involves movements that resemble sport- or activity-specific actions, can include exercises such as arm circles, leg swings, cat-camel, and standing gate openers. These moves will help to increase body temperature, enhance joint flexibility, increase muscle elasticity, and functionally prepare the body for whatever activity is to come.
Looking for stretches to incorporate into your cool-down? Check out ACE’s Exercise Library!
Jessica Matthews is an exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. As a contributor to The Juice Bar, she'll be giving you the scoop on the latest fitness classes, decoding newfangled gym equipment, debunking exercise myths, and more.
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