Sometimes all you want to do is get your workout over and done with. And in the spirit of getting out of the gym or off the running trail as soon as possible, it can be tempting to skip out on stretching altogether.
Conventional belief dictates that it’s the last thing we should skip. Stretching before a workout prepares our muscles for the activity they’re about to engage in, and stretching afterwards helps to encourage recovery. But the reality is, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific evidence to prove that stretching is necessary.
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This may not come as a surprise to viewers of HBO’s Hard Knocks — that is, if the comments made in a recent episode by Bob Wylie, Cleveland Browns offensive line coach, resonated with them.
Wylie’s disdain for allowing his players to stretch before practice notwithstanding, you’d be hard pressed to find a fitness professional who would advise against stretching before and after engaging in physical activity.
“Stretching allows our bodies to achieve resilience and mobility,” says Devon Blackburn, a registered kinesiologist in Ottawa. “Health Canada tells us that we need to get cardiovascular exercise for heart health and that women need to work with weights to prevent osteoporosis, but we don’t hear about stretching.”
“From my perspective, if we don’t have the flexibility [afforded by stretching], we can’t do the cardio or muscular strength training. It’s foundational in terms of movement.”
Types of stretching
There are two primary types of stretching we are encouraged to engage in: dynamic and static stretching. The former is what you do prior to working out and the latter is a post-workout activity.
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“A dynamic stretch is what you do in your warmup and it helps to stimulate the nervous system,” says Kathie Sharkey, a registered kinesiologist and director of education at the Womens Fitness Clubs of Canada. “A static stretch is done after your workout to increase the relaxation of muscles and help with range of motion.”
Timing is of the essence when it comes to stretching, which is why exercise professionals make the distinction between the different types and when they should be done.
“A dynamic warm-up is key to preventing joint injury. If you’re going to play basketball, you don’t want to walk on to the court and start playing full out because it will put you at risk,” Sharkey says. “That’s why you see professional basketball players doing some shooting first. They’re going through the motions of the game and allowing their muscles to transition from a passive phase to an active one.”
She says to choose the dynamic activity based on what you’re about to do. If you’re going to play soccer, work on your legs and hips; if you’re playing volleyball, focus on your shoulders, neck and wrists; if you’re going for a run, walk for five minutes before breaking into a steady jog.
Static stretching after a workout is a good cooldown that allows you to release any tension. Plus, it helps to prevent shortening of muscles.
“The great news is that you can see results from targeted stretching within two to three weeks,” Sharkey says. “People who sit all day tend to have a forward posture that encourages headaches and neck pain. All that can be alleviated with stretching. It can make such a difference.”
What else can stretching do?
We know there are three main targets we should be aiming for with exercise: aerobic activity, strength training and flexibility. An all-encompassing workout plan incorporates all three elements, however, the key to achieving them all lies in stretching.
“I have worked with individuals where I predominantly spend time breaking down preconceived notions about exercise,” Blackburn says.
“When I look at how a person moves, it doesn’t make sense for them to go to the gym and start lifting weights if they can’t really complete a stretch.”
She says that if the flexibility component is underconditioned, it’s difficult to hit the other targets. We need the mobility afforded by stretching to do cardio, and the flexibility and resilience it offers to do weight training.
“In fact, stretching can even tone the body if your flexibility component is low. You might even see some weight loss,” Blackburn says. “If you cut your cardio workout short by five minutes and spend that time stretching, and it’s something that your body requires, it will respond because it’s a workout in itself.”
What can’t stretching do?
If your muscles are sore, stretching won’t necessarily do much to help you heal. Although it can just generally feel good.
Researchers at the George Institute for Global Health in Sydney reviewed 12 studies on stretching and found that soreness relief provided by stretching was minimal at best. Study participants on average reported that pre-exercise stretching reduced soreness one day after exercising by 0.5 points out of 100; post-exercise stretching reduced soreness by one point out of 100; and both pre- and post-exercise stretching reduced soreness one week after exercising by four points.
Of course, stretching when you feel sore may just feel good and offer some relief, so go ahead and do it if you think you could benefit from it.
How to stretch
As Sharkey said earlier, think about stretching (both dynamic and static) the areas you worked the most. Not every stretch session needs to target every single muscle group.
“If you’ve been on a bike for 45 minutes, your upper body hasn’t done a lot because it’s been held up, so you don’t need to add another 10 or 15 minutes to your workout,” Blackburn says. “Do each leg for one minute, your hips and your core. You can get it all done in six minutes.”
The thing she stresses, however, is not to cut your stretching short, especially the post-workout static stretch.
“Most people hold their stretch for 15 to 30 seconds, which isn’t long enough. If you’re aiming to maintain your current flexibility, coming in at under a minute is good enough. But if you’re looking to improve your flexibility, you have to hold your stretch for at least a full minute.”
But that doesn’t mean pushing yourself too hard into a stretch.
“People think stretching should hurt, but that’s not right,” Sharkey says.
“It should be comfortably uncomfortable. You want to feel it but you don’t want to be in pain. Each muscle has a stretch reflex and if you go too far, it will be initiated, the muscle will be shortened and it will be painful.”
Most importantly, however, is to breathe through your stretch. This helps to increase blood pressure and brings oxygen to the muscle.
Another misconception that Blackburn hopes to clear up is that stretching is only beneficial to one age group. Specifically, seniors.
“It would be easy to say that the senior population benefits from stretching the most, but we need to start ingraining it in kids from a young age. If we do that, we’ll see them aging much more gracefully than the senior populations now.”