The importance of stretching for overall health and fitness shouldn't be overlooked but is it important to stretch before, during and after a normal exercise session or should stretching be performed on it's own in isolation from cardiovascular or weight training sessions?
Why is stretching an important part of physical fitness?
Performing stretches allows one's muscles to reach their full range of motion (ROM) and this in turn allows muscles to perform effectively when weight training or performing cardiovascular or sprinting (very fast moving and dynamic) forms of exercise. Being flexible is a sure sign that someone stretches and is near the peak of their physical fitness. Not sure? Well, who do you think is more flexible? A ballerina, gymnast, sprinter or someone who sits on the sofa all day watching TV? The answer is pretty simple - all of the above, bar one.
All professional athletes stretch to some degree. From marathon runners, footballers, skiers, weight lifters and even golfers, all perform flexibility tasks and stretches as part of their on-going exercise programmes.
But should I stretch before exercise?
Research shows that performing static stretches prior to exercise can actually have a negative impact on performance. From gym goers to runners, performing static stretches - stretches where you hold a position of stretch for 10-60 seconds reduces the amount of overall performance, whether this is by lifting lighter weights or running at a lower speed.
However, dynamic stretches performed before exercise actually promotes higher performance in all forms of sport and exercise.
What are dynamic stretches?
Dynamic stretches are fluid movements that move a muscle through its full range of motion (ROM) without pausing in any one position. This might include arms swings, leg swings, twists at the waists, hip rolls - bending the knee and rotating the leg in the hip socket, and very light movements with weights - fast squats, shoulder presses, bench presses, press ups etc.
Dynamic stretches improve flexibility prior to exercise and get the blood flowing to the muscles groups that will begin to work once exercise commences - e.g. quadriceps and shoulders for runners, legs and hips for golfers?
Should I use dynamic stretches before and during exercise sessions?
Yes by all means. Aim to use dynamic stretches to warm up for 5 to 10 minutes prior to vigorous exercise and as light active rest in between bouts of heavy exercise. For example perform arms swings and leg flicks between sprints or light leg swings between squats.
Should I stretch after exercise?
Many people believe that static stretching speeds up the recovery of muscles when performed after exercise. However, the research on this is still not conclusive, with many sports scientists believing that performing static stretches directly after exercise may push the muscles natural range of motion (ROM) to far and cause injury.
That said, as long as you're peforming static or dynamic stretches only to a point that feels *mildly* discomforting (you can feel the stretch slightly) then performing either post exercise will be fine and will actually help improve flexibility if performed a number of times during a given week.
So, the question of whether you should perform stretches before, during and after exercise is simple. Yes. Just me mindful of the types of stretches you perform and when.