CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES – Most of us have been taught from a young age that failing to stretch before or after exercising is akin to a mortal sin. Skip your stretching routine, the thinking goes, and you’ll be more prone to injury, soreness and a generally worse workout.
But is this wisdom backed by science? And do you really need to stretch before and after every exercise?
“The simplest way to answer that question would be no,” said assistant professor of clinical orthopaedics and rehabilitation Dr Samantha Smith at the Yale School of Medicine. But the longer answer, experts said, is that it depends on the type of workout you’re doing as well as your fitness goals. Here’s why:
If you’re about to do an exercise that doesn’t involve a large range of motion, such as a jog for a few miles at a relatively steady pace, you don’t need to stretch beforehand, said research professor in sports science Dr David Behm at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. (There are many different types of stretching, but for this story, we’re talking about static stretching, where you hold 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. While 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 jumps or explosive lifts to work on both speed and strength).
Dr Behm said that strength exercises involving large movements, like squats or bench presses, will lengthen muscles in the same way that stretching does. So stretching before a lifting session would not improve your performance (or be a great use of your time). And, Dr Behm said, stretching can slightly fatigue your muscles and tendons, so if you stretch your quads and glutes before you do squats, for example, that may actually hinder your workout.
Many people stretch before working out to reduce their risk of injury, but there’s a lot of conflicting evidence on that topic as well, Dr Behm said. For instance, he and his colleagues found in a 2021 review that while static stretching before exercise didn’t always decrease the risk of injury, it did reduce muscle and tendon injuries when done before exercises requiring agility and explosive movements, like sprinting, jumping or pivoting. Ideal preparation for exercise comes in two steps, said associate professor of health sciences and human performance Eduardo De Souza at the University of Tampa.
First, you should raise your body temperature with a warm-up – light jogging, jump rope or light cycling, for example. “And then you do a rehearsal of the movements for what comes next.” That means dynamic movements that stretch your muscles’ full range of motion – think walking lunges or arm circles.
Many people stretch after a workout because they think it will aid their recovery and minimise soreness, Dr Behm said. But “the literature is very mixed on that”, 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.