Most of us have learned from an early age that not stretching before or after exercise is a mortal sin. Skip your stretching routine, it is thought, and you’ll be more prone to injury, soreness, and a generally worse workout.
But is this wisdom supported by science? And do you really need to stretch before and after every exercise? “The easiest way to answer that question would be no,” said Dr. Samantha Smith, assistant professor of clinical orthopedics and rehabilitation at Yale School of Medicine.
But the longer answer, experts say, is that it depends on the type of workout you do as well as your fitness goals. Here’s why.
What the research suggests
If you’re about to do an exercise that doesn’t involve a wide range of motion, like jogging a few miles at a relatively steady pace, you don’t need to stretch first, says David Behm, research professor. in Sports Science from Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. (There are many different types of stretches, but for this story we’re talking about static stretches, where you stand still in a position to lengthen a muscle.)
In such a case, a simple warm-up with dynamic movements – like lunges, squats, butt kicks and high knees – will adequately prepare your body.
Although some evidence is conflicting, the majority of research also suggests that static stretching has no effect on – or may even hinder – your performance during strength and power training. (Power training involves performing moves like explosive jumps or lifts to work on both speed and strength.)
Dr. Behm said that strength exercises involving large movements, such as squats or bench presses, will lengthen muscles in the same way as stretching. So stretching before a lifting session wouldn’t improve your performance (or be a great use of your time). And, Dr. Behm said, stretching can strain your muscles and tendons slightly, so if you stretch your quads and glutes before doing squats, for example, it can actually get in the way of your training.
Many people stretch before training to reduce their risk of injury, but there’s also a lot of conflicting evidence on this, Dr. Behm said. For example, he and his colleagues found in a 2021 review that while static stretching before exercise did not always reduce injury risk, it did reduce muscle and tendon injury when performed before exercises that required strength. agility and explosive movements, such as sprinting, jumping or pivoting.
The ideal preparation for exercise happens in two stages, said Eduardo De Souza, associate professor of health sciences and human performance at the University of Tampa. First, you need to raise your body temperature with a warm-up – light jogging, jumping rope, or light cycling, for example. “And then you do a rehearsal of the moves for what comes next.”
This means dynamic movements that stretch the full range of motion of your muscles – think lunges or arm circles.
What about stretching after a workout?
Many people stretch after a workout because they believe it will help them recover and minimize soreness, Dr. Behm said. But “the literature is very mixed on this” too, Dr Smith added. When it comes to stretching after lifting weights to prevent muscle soreness, for example, “there have been studies that have shown a positive benefit and studies that have shown no benefit,” she said. declared. Similarly, in a 2021 review, researchers found no evidence that static stretching after a workout sped recovery (or did anything helpful at all). That said, Dr. Smith saw no evidence that stretching as part of a post-workout cool-down is harmful.
In another 2021 review, Dr. Behm and his team found that stretching to minimize pain only works if you have a consistent stretching routine, separate from other workouts, that you were doing regularly before you started. to do strenuous exercise. These stretches should last 30 to 60 seconds for each muscle group and be done at least twice a week.
After a workout, you should do a good cool-down, and stretching is one way to do that, Dr. De Souza said — just like foam rolling or walking. However, he added, there isn’t enough research to determine which recovery method will make you feel better after a workout.
When should you stretch?
If you want to improve your flexibility or mobility, stretching various muscle groups for about 30 to 60 seconds each day can help, Dr. Smith said. It can also be beneficial in ways you may not even have realized.
People don’t often think of stretching for flexibility as a separate type of exercise or workout, Dr. Smith said, but adding a separate stretching routine to your weekly workout schedule can help you achieve your flexibility goals.
Stretching can also help loosen tight muscles. But be careful, Dr. Smith said, because “an injured muscle or a weak muscle is often a tight muscle.” If a muscle feels tight and sore, it’s a sign that it might be injured, so you should consult a health care provider before you start stretching it.
Other benefits of regular stretching include better balance as well as help with joint and muscle pain, Dr. Behm said.
But rather than focusing on whether or not to stretch, Dr. Smith said, it’s important to get the big picture of fitness, “which is being strong, having a good balance, having good coordination” are all important goals to achieve. with different types of exercises. Stretching can be one of them, but if it doesn’t fit your schedule or goals, you don’t have to force it.