Stretching. It’s painful but somehow also feels amazing. As time goes on, many people realize just how important stretching is to their health. So how do we get the most out of stretching and when is the best time to stretch?
Before we get to that, we have a couple of other questions ahead of us. Why is stretching so important? What are the different types of stretching? When do I do what type of stretch? First, let’s focus on different types of stretching.
Different Stretching Types
One of the first aspects of stretching correctly is knowing the different types of stretching. When looking at different stretching types, there are different ways to stretch yourself for different goals and needs. Let’s cut out some confusion about the different types.
This is definitely the most known and used type of stretching. Static stretching is defined as elongating a specific muscle group to its maximum length and holding it for 30 seconds or so.
Within static stretching, there are two different ways you can static stretch:
- Active – Force applied to the muscle being stretched is applied by the individual who is stretching.
- Passive – The force applied to the muscle being stretched is done by an external force (i.e., bands or a workout partner).
Contrary to static stretching, dynamic stretching is stretching while on the move. Typically, dynamic stretching is more geared toward physical activity. For example, if you are preparing for a track race then you may want to consider doing exercises like long, exaggerated strides to warm up your legs.
You see football players doing these types of exercises before games or during practice. In fact, many high-profile personal trainers utilize this technique with competitive athletes.
Myofascial Release or “rolling out” as some refer to it as, is done through the use of a foam roller or a similar device. The goal of rolling out is to release tension that builds up in the fascia. Typically the exercise is done by placing the body part you’d like to stretch on the roller. Then you roll out about a 6-inch area of that muscle for 30 seconds or so.
Then once finished with the initial 6-inch area, you work up, down, and around the area of focus to make sure the entire area has received the exercise.
What happens when we stretch?
Not all aspects of stretching are clear, however, we do know that stretching correctly does have a strong correlation with increasing flexibility and power. Industry professionals believe stretching regularly trains the body in two different ways:
- You are training the nervous system to develop a higher tolerance for stretching.
- Something is happening to the muscle to enable a greater range of flexibility.
Over time you can train your muscle through regular stretching to have a greater range of motion. And physically, it makes sense that more flexibility would make you more powerful because it really just comes down to a physics problem. Let me elaborate.
If you were told to place your fist on a punching bag and then pull your fist away such that it was only 6 inches from the surface of the punching bag, do you think you could apply maximum force in your punch? The answer is probably not. However, if you could pull your fist as far back as possible and give it a good punch, do you think you’d be able to generate more force? The answer is more likely yes.
This is the same concept for stretching. When stretching correctly, you give your muscles more range of movement and therefore more room to stretch and then contract to generate more force. Some of you may recognize this concept as momentum.
However, there is a time and place to stretch. Studies show that static stretching prior to a sporting event can actually reduce the amount of power you generate in the short term. So, when is the best time to stretch? Well, let’s look at what stretching correctly looks like in the context of sports performance.
How often do you need to stretch and is there such a thing as too much flexibility?
According to Harvard Health, the average adult should stretch every major muscle and tendon group at least two to three times a week. Additionally, you should do your best to hold each stretch for a total time of 60 seconds. For example, if you are stretching the hamstring on your left leg and you can only hold it for 15 seconds, take a rest and then repeat that 3 more times for a total of 60 seconds. Then repeat for the other leg and expand this technique across all major muscle groups.
However, you may want to make adjustments to your stretching routine based on your activity. Dancers, for example, will need to be far more flexible than a bodybuilder.
According to the National Health Service in the UK, think of your muscles like a spring. When you want a spring to generate power, you compress it then you let it go. But what happens when you stretch a spring out too far? It loses its ability to generate as much power.
This analogy demonstrates the potential downside of stretching too much or at the wrong times. Because just like springs, if you stretch your muscles too much, you sacrifice some of the elastic nature of your muscles that allow them to contract and extend to create power. The key takeaway here is that athletes who are runners or play an explosive sport, may not want to stretch as often as, say, a dancer, or even at the same time as a dancer (prior to performance).
How does stretching prior to exercise impact performance?
This study found that stretching before performance does weaken your muscle and reduce power ever so slightly. So the answer to “When is the best time to stretch?” is that it depends on the subsequent activity. For a ballerina, they may need to stretch quite a lot to ensure they are as flexible as possible to pull off all of their moves correctly. While the ballerina’s muscles will be weaker, they will perform better. On the contrary, a football player needs more power during competitions. Coaches often suggest using a different stretching method than the ballerina to ensure they have max power while preventing the potential for a muscle strain.
However, another study – one of the top three largest studies done on the impact of stretching on sports performance – showed little to no evidence supporting the notion that stretching prior to exercise correlated to a reduced risk of injury during intense exercise or competition.
In this case, coaches recommend athletes in sports that need the most power stretch after a competition and focus on warming up muscles prior to competition. The best time to stretch for these athletes may not be before competition.
What causes muscle injuries in intense exercise?
Exercisers typically injure their muscles when they place their muscles under more stress than they can handle. An example of this is picking up and lowering a heavyweight or sustaining a heavy blow to an appendage that pushes the muscle beyond its limits.
In this case, the muscle isn’t tearing because it wasn’t flexible enough but because it couldn’t support itself while bearing the weight. Either that or the muscle didn’t contract at the right time, causing an overextension.
Does stretching reduce soreness at all?
The short answer here is yes. However, according to another study done by Prof Herbert of the Cochrane Library, stretching may not have as big an impact on post-exercise soreness as we thought.
While the studies performed did demonstrate that stretching before, after, or before and after exercise, did reduce soreness, it “…[did] not produce clinically important reductions in delayed‐onset muscle soreness in healthy adults.”.
Essentially, all that means is while stretching did ever-so-slightly reduce soreness in adults after exercise, the results were not significant enough to draw any conclusion or correlations.
So, Should you Stretch before Exercise?
This is completely up to you. If your objective is to reduce soreness or the potential for injury, then stretching isn’t the way to go. There just simply isn’t enough evidence to support the notion that stretching reduces the likelihood of injury. Really, sports medicine professionals recommend focusing on warming up your muscles through light aerobic activities while gradually increasing the intensity of the warm-up until you have a light sweat.
If you stretch because you like to sit down and stretch and you really don’t care, then have at it. There’s no real harm in doing so.
Okay, How the heck do we warm up then?
Yeah, writing this blog has thrown me through a loop as well. Writing this blog, I realized that I had warmed up for competitions wrong my whole life. Not only that, but my coaches incorrectly instructed me about how to warm up as well. Really, this doesn’t come as a surprise. It seems like we are discovering a lot of our assumptions about “widely known fitness facts” are actually wrong.
Okay, enough complaining, back to the science. You warm up to prepare physically and mentally for your exercise or competition. According to experts, warm-ups should consist of light aerobic activity and dynamic stretching that mimic the exercises and movements you are about to perform. The goal is to increase blood flow through an elevated heart rate. This accomplishes a couple of things:
- Increased blood flow literally warms the muscle-up, making it less stiff.
- It drives more oxygen to the muscle, increasing the availability of energy to the muscle.
- Warming up also helps activate more nerves in the muscle that help improve reaction times, critical to sports performance.
Okay, Should I stretch after exercise?
There is evidence that stretching after exercise does help increase power, speed, and reduction of injury. By far the best time to stretch is when your muscles are warm and malleable. Stretching post-exercise can also act like a nice warm down as it gives your body a chance to slow its heart rate and return to a resting state. Some coaches also advise gentle stretching before bed to improve sleep quality.
The relationship between stretching and physical performance is often misunderstood. After research, it seems like it’s widely advised not to do static stretching prior to exercise or competition unless you fit inside of an exception or your exercise/competition is an exception (think dancers, ballerinas, people recovering from injury, etc…). It’s really recommended to use light cardio activity and dynamic stretching to prepare your body for exercise or sports. Flexibility is important though, and stretching after exercise can be highly beneficial.
Where to go for the best stretching advice?
If you are concerned about stretching correctly, then you may want to consider consulting a personal trainer. Personal trainers are experienced professionals that constantly stay up to date with the latest developments in sports medicine and performance. In fact, if you head over to www.findtraingain.com, you might even be able to find a trainer that specializes in this sort of thing.