For eons (literally since the age of the Ancient Greeks and Romans), it has been believed that stretching prior to a workout or race was an important step in preventing injuries and improving performance. However, recent research has shown that stretching before a workout may not be as beneficial as once thought. In this blog post, we'll discuss why you shouldn't stretch before you workout and what you should do instead.
Static stretching (or holding a muscle at its end range for a duration of time with the intent to cause a lengthening of the tissue) before a workout can actually do more harm than good. When you stretch cold muscles, it can cause micro-tears in the muscle fibers, which can lead to injury. This is because your muscles are not yet warmed up and are not as pliable as they are when they are warm. Micro-tears in the muscle can disrupt the muscle-to-brain connection thus altering your body's response to stimuli of that muscle; your brain won't send appropriate signals to the muscles to produce appropriate strength and power output, thus also negatively impacting your performance.
Instead of stretching before your workout, try doing a dynamic warm-up. This can include some light cardio and bodyweight exercises, such as jogging in place or jumping jacks, to get your heart rate up and your blood flowing. This will warm up your muscles and prepare them for the workout ahead.
Additionally, add in some dynamic stretching, which involves moving your body through a range of motions to gradually increase your heart rate and loosen up your muscles. Dynamic stretching is different from static stretching in that you'll be moving and controlling your body and limbs through an available range of motion versus holding a position at end range.
Dynamic stretching can include exercises like walking lunges, leg swings, and arm circles. These exercises can help increase blood flow to your muscles, improve your range of motion, and activate the muscles you'll be using during your workout.
This isn't all to say that you shouldn't stretch at all. Stretching after your workout can be beneficial. This can help improve your flexibility and reduce the risk of injury. Stretching after your workout can include all the static stretches that you might be familiar with, including a good hamstring stretch or this great 'Runner's Stretch' for the hip flexors.
Stretching can certainly be an important tool to maintain one's range of motion and flexibility. However, stretching before your workout may not be as important as once thought. Incorporate some dynamic mobility work to prepare your brain and muscles for the workout ahead. And if it's appropriate for you, stretch after your workout. If you're not sure where to start, check in with your physio, coach or trainer to get a plan.