How many times have you been told to stretch before a workout in order to prep your muscles for exercise? Probably more instances than you can count. We’ve been hearing the stretch-first message for decades, so for many of us, it’s an ingrained part of any workout, a step we wouldn’t dare skip for fear of upping our chances of injury.
The longstanding convention has been that stretching safeguards muscles from sprains, strains and tears by “warming them up”—in other words, by promoting blood flow to the tissues and lengthening the fibers. This in turn boosts flexibility and expands range of motion so you’re better prepared to tackle a 5K run or sweaty elliptical session.
While stretching indeed makes muscles more pliable, does tugging on your hamstrings or touching your toes before a workout actually boost performance or keep you from getting hurt? Recent research overwhelmingly says no.
The wrong reasons to stretch
A 2011 study by the USA Track and Field Association made a serious splash when it reported that pre-workout stretching did not affect injury rates among more than 2,700 runners. Half of the participants were told to stretch their hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles for three to five minutes before running, while the other half skipped stretching altogether. Interestingly, throughout the three-month trial, the injury rate for both groups was 16 percent, suggesting stretching had no impact on muscular woes.
And this wasn’t the first study to negate stretching’s role in injury prevention—or performance. “Research over the last decade is pretty conclusive that static stretching (holding a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds) does not boost performance or decrease risk of injury,” says Michael Bracko, PhD, a sports physiologist and director of the nonprofit Institute for Hockey Research. He cites studies that have examined the gamut of exercise types, frequencies and intensities to come up with the same conclusions.
But how can something supposedly so important not keep you from getting hurt? Bracko points to a widespread misunderstanding of what stretching actually does and why sprains, strains and spasms occur. “People think that if their muscles are more flexible and can go through a wider range of motion, they’ll decrease injury,” Bracko says. “But that’s not why an injury happens. It occurs when a muscle gets tired, fails and can’t do its job anymore. When you static stretch just before a bike ride or high-tempo run, certain parts of the muscles stay elongated—just like a stretched-out plastic bag. This actually makes the muscles weaker afterward.”
Therefore, rather than stretching muscles before exercise, Bracko suggests literally moving them by gently emulating the motions you’ll do in your workout. “Pedal your bike around for five or 10 minutes, and then get into the tough ride. Or before weight training, do some whole-body movements and lift a few light weights,” he says, explaining that moving the body in these ways promotes blood flow to the muscles much better than stretching from a stationary position can. If you still want to stretch, and you have the time, Bracko says to do so after warming up.
The right reasons to stretch
All this isn’t to say stretching is bad. It isn’t. Regardless of whether it helps stave off injuries, stretching improves flexibility and increases range of motion and therefore can be highly beneficial to the body when done appropriately, at the proper times and for the right reasons.
In fact, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) adamantly encourages static stretching before exercise—but only after you’ve warmed up your muscles and body by walking around or doing wide arm circles for a few minutes, just as Bracko suggests. Along with fostering flexibility, ACE says, stretching can help ease muscle soreness, decrease mental stress and increase coordination. For the most effective execution, the council recommends slowly stretching a muscle until you feel a gentle tension—not pain, or you’ve gone too far—and holding it for 15 to 30 seconds while breathing normally. Repeat two to four times, and never bounce, or you’ll jar your muscles.
But stretching also has a solid place outside the gym and off the racquetball court, and can be a healthy addition to your everyday routine of work and casual play.
Whether slumped at a desk, standing in an assembly line or driving a car, most people have a position they’re in chronically, says Bracko. “Therefore, we all have muscles that become shortened. For those who hunch over a computer all day, for example, it’s the shoulder and chest muscles that get tight.” Constant crouching, sitting, standing or leaning can make muscles sore, but it also can ransack your posture and be mentally taxing.
To keep the body loose, Bracko recommends taking a stretch break every 60 minutes. “If you sit at a desk, stand up and do three different stretches,” he says. “Swing your arms side to side to stretch your shoulder and chest, swivel your torso to target your back and put your leg up on a drawer to stretch your hamstring. Hold each for 10 counts.” To incorporate more movement throughout your day, Bracko suggests standing up when you talk on phone or when someone drops by for a chat, and arranging your desk so that you can’t reach everything while sitting in your chair.