The Pre- Versus Post-Workout Stretching Debate
By Chris Brown
It is the oft-debated question of athletes and gym-enthusiasts: to stretch before or after a workout. When I was a youth athlete, stretches and toe-touches proceeded most any sports game or practice. However, exercise science has morphed the philosophy of pre-workout stretching over the years as data has revealed that it may not prevent injury as much as previously believed.
Some still swear by a pre-exercise stretch, while others believe that stretching post-workout is ideal for the body. And then, there are those who have declared stretching a waste of time altogether. However, most athletes and conditioning coaches agree that some degree of stretching or warm-ups/cooldowns can help prevent injury and reduce muscle fatigue and soreness.
Benefits of Pre-Workout Stretching
One of the main arguments against pre-workout stretching is that stretching cold muscles, just like jumping into intense exercise, can lead to pulls or tears. Most trainers recommend a light warm-up before any exercise as muscles tend to be tighter (and more prone to injury) when cold. But what if one's stretches are incorporated into their warm-up routine?
In an article for Well + Good, certified trainer Holly Roser recommends dynamic stretching, or stretching that includes movement such as lunges or jumping jacks prior to exercise. Dynamic stretching would seem to work well pre-workout because it warms up the muscles with movement as they stretch. It makes sense that this could reduce the risk of those muscles and ligaments tearing under stress. However, studies have not found statistical benefits to pre-workout stretchers in terms of injury or muscle soreness.
This does not mean that research has determined pre-workout stretching is entirely irrelevant. Researchers have pointed out that the increased blood flow and range-of-motion from dynamic stretching can improve performance during exercise. Anecdotally, I find that pre-workout, dynamic stretching practices have seemed to allow me to lift heavier weights with less fatigue.
Benefits of Post-Workout Stretching
Proponents of post-workout stretching tend to focus on the fact that post-workout's warmer, relaxed muscles can achieve deeper stretches. While there is debate as to whether post-workout stretching reduces muscle soreness, stretching warm muscles can dramatically improve one's long-term flexibility. This is because one can safely deploy more intense, dynamic stretching without injury risk. During post-workout stretches, ligaments and muscle fibers lengthen longer than they would if stretched before the workout. This is particularly important for larger muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, and chest, which can be difficult to stretch effectively in a cold state.
In the Well + Good article, Roser concludes that deploying various stretches both before and following a workout provides the best benefits for the exerciser. If only one stretching period can be fit into your exercise regiment, the one to choose depends upon the type of exercise and the desired outcome. For example, one could stretch before an athletic competition to improve short-term performance and after a strength-training workout to maintain large-muscle flexibility as they build strength. Regardless, stretching at least once per workout can improve your long-term flexibility, which ultimately reduces injury risk and improves performance.
To learn more about your health, wellness and fitness, see your local chiropractor at The Joint Chiropractic in Harahan, La.