What you should know about pre-workout stretches

Differing opinions circulate online about pre-workout stretches. Some sources say you benefit from them, others say the practice is obsolete. Which is it?

The answer is somewhere in the middle. Here’s what you should know about pre-workout stretches!

Warm-ups versus stretches: what’s the difference?

The first thing you should know is that stretches are not the same as warm-ups.

A warm-up is intended to increase blood flow, to get your heart pumping and prepare it for the intensity of the task ahead. Warm-ups are less intense versions of the actual exercise. They’re designed to dilate the blood vessels supplying your muscles and increase oxygen supply. Notice how if you do a workout “cold” you’re more likely to get a cramp, because there isn’t enough oxygen to go around for the task.

Stretching, on the other hand, is intended to prepare your joints to go through a wider range of motion during your workout. It’s more about flexibility than being able to sustain your cardio, but it’s no less important. Your joints still need to be able to keep up with a full range of motion, or you’ll risk straining or pulling a muscle.

They’re different things with different benefits, but both are beneficial to your workout.

Why is it important to stretch pre-workout?

Stretching before engaging in a sport or a workout is important to allow muscles to lengthen to their full capacity, and joints to achieve full flexibility.

Flexibility is the ability of a joint to move effectively through its full range of motion. Stretching is paramount in activities that demand a wide range of motion like dancing, gymnastics, or figure skating. But even in exercises that don’t demand that you twist your body into pretzels, stretching is still important.

To allow a joint to complete movements, muscles must loosen and elongate. Going into a workout “cold” means the muscles controlling the joints are still short and tight. Consequently, other muscles compensate for the tightened muscle.

Much of physical skill is ingrained in muscle memory, so if you’re using the wrong muscles, your movements will feel unnatural. At best, you won’t be able to perform at your top ability; at worst, it could put you at risk for injury.

How should I stretch?

Each stretch should be sustained for about 10-30 seconds. You should feel some level of discomfort as you push your muscles and joints to perform a little more than usual, but not pain. Pay attention to both sides of the body when you stretch – not just your dominant side! – so that all muscles are stretched equally.  

Finally, breathe during your stretches. Inhale deeply through the nose as you get into position, then exhale slowly through the mouth as you exert effort during the stretch. This ensures adequate oxygen supply for your muscles, and keeps you centred and focused on the muscle groups you are stretching.

Are there specific stretches for different workouts?

To play it safe, you could just go over the head-to-toe stretches you used to do in P.E. at school. But if you have a particular sport in mind, you might want to ask what stretches are specific to your chosen activity. For example, the stretches of a martial artist who does kicks and spins will be different from the stretches of a runner.

In general, there are two different types of stretches: static stretches and dynamic stretches.

  • Static stretching is simply stretching a body part until you feel slight discomfort and holding the position for 10-30 seconds. However, static stretches do not double as a warmup, as you only stand in place and it doesn’t get your blood running. Hamstring and quadriceps stretches are examples of static stretches.
  • Dynamic stretching uses repetitive movements designed to gradually increase range of motion. Some dynamic stretches can count as warm-ups, because they involve a series of movements that stretches the muscles, prepares the joints for motion, and puts effort on the heart and blood vessels to get the blood moving. Walking lunges count as a dynamic stretch.

What could happen if I don’t stretch before a workout?

There’s no scientific evidence that says you absolutely have to stretch before every workout. The question actually depends on what kind of activity you’re about to do.

Sports that involve a lot of bouncing and jumping require elastic muscles that can lengthen and shorten quickly. For activities like football and basketball, it’s important to stretch so your muscles aren’t tight and stiff. Properly stretched muscles can better accommodate that elastic energy, and you don’t need other muscles to compensate. Using the wrong sets of muscles is what sets you up for injury.

On the other hand, stretching muscles actually makes them weaker because stretched muscles become more relaxed and less responsive. That’s all right for, say, gymnastics, where the body is expected to have more flexibility than brute strength. But for activities like weightlifting, a conservative pre-workout stretch routine might be better.

What about after workouts?

After exercise, muscles are long and loose. They may get sore and stiff if you allow them to shorten by suddenly stopping intense activity. Cool-down stretches help the muscles return to normal length, gradually relaxing them after exertion.

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