Many people take it for granted that they should start their exercise routines with some stretchingon the spot, perhaps hoping it will loosen them up for their work-out. Most fitness experts now agree this kind of stretching before exercise is not just counter-productive, but potentially harmful.
Tradtional Stretching Can Injure
Traditional stretches, like when people bend over to touch their toes often cause the muscles to tighten rather than relax -- exactly the opposite of what is needed for physical activity according to fitness experts. This type of stretch, called static stretching, is more likely to cause muscle pulls, rather than prevent them.
"We have developed this idea of static stretching at exactly the wrong time," said Kieran O'Sullivan, an exercise expert at the University of Limerick in Ireland, who has studied various types of stretching and their impact on athletes.
When you stretch before exercising, your body may think it's at risk of being overstretched. The body compensates by contracting and becoming more tense. That means you aren't as flexible, and you are not able to move as fast or as freely, making you more likely to get injured.
Static Stretching Can Make You Weaker
In the last few years, several studies have found static stretching before playing a sport makes you slower and weaker.
And when experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention combed through more than 100 papers looking at stretching studies, they found people who stretched before exercise were no less likely to suffer injuries such as a pulled muscle, which the increased flexibility from stretching is supposed to prevent.
Stretch AFTER your Workout for Better Results
O'Sullivan said stretching helps with flexibility, but people should only do it when they aren't about to exercise, like after a workout, or at the end of the day.
"It's like weight training to become stronger," he said. "You wouldn't do a weight session right before you exercise, and you shouldn't stretch right before either."
Pre Workout Warmup Instead of Stretching
Instead of stretching, many fitness experts recommend warming up with a light jog or sport-specific exercise, like kicking for football or a few serves for tennis. That type of light movement increases the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, warming up the body temperature.
"This allows you to approach your full range of motion, but in a very controlled way," said Dr. Anders Cohen, chief of neurosurgery and spine surgery at the Brooklyn Hospital Center and former physician for the U.S. Tennis Open. Cohen said elite athletes in all sports are increasingly ditching static stretching and using other warm-up techniques instead.
Old School Static Stretching Not Going Away
But the message has yet to trickle down to legions of joggers and recreational athletes. "This is classic, old-school stretching that has been done for generations," Cohen said. "It's going to be very hard to convince people to start doing something different."
There's more news for the traditionalists: research shows static stretching doesn't work as well as more active stretching. Active stretching can include moves that incorporate movement, such as lunges.
Active Stretching a Better Approach
In a study published earlier this year in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, Roberto Meroni of the University of Milan and colleagues found people who stretched using conventional stretching techniques, like bending over to touch their toes, were less flexible than those who did active stretching.
Active stretching is also referred to as static-active stretching. An active stretch is one where you assume a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. For example, bringing your leg up high and then holding it there without anything (other than your leg muscles themselves) to keep the leg in that extended position. The tension of the agonists in active stretching helps to relax the muscles being stretched (the antagonists) by reciprocal inhibition.
Active stretching increases active flexibility and strengthens the agonistic muscles. Active stretches are usually quite difficult to hold and maintain for more than 10 seconds and rarely need to be held any longer than 15 seconds.
Meroni said static stretching simply forces the muscle being stretched to endure the pain of that stretch. With active stretching that work more muscles, the stretched muscles learn to extend while another group is working.
Those types of stretches are commonly used in yoga, which emphasizes how the body is aligned during stretches, not just flexibility. Many yoga poses involve the whole body and focus not only on stretching a particular muscle, but the ligaments, tendons and joints around it.
Still, experts don't discount static stretching entirely. Lynn Millar, a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, said health and fitness experts recommend people stretch several times a week and that most types of stretching work.
Maximizing the benefits of stretching may simply boil down to a matter of when you stretch, how you stretch and how often you stretch, according to Jeff Behar, a health and fitness experts from Beverly Hills, California, and CEO of MuscleMagFitness.com.
"If you are going to stretch your muscles and then do some intense training, you're not going to get fantastic results, you are more likely to be tighter and weaker" added Behar.
Instead, Behar recommends active isolated stretching that mimic the movement of your intended activity, like some deep knee lunges while walking for runners.
"Stretching is vital to become more flexible," Behar said. "But stretching has to be done at the right time and for the right reasons. The best time to stretch is following your workout to stretch out uour muscles and minimize post-workout lactic acid buildup. This will also help minimize dalyed onset muscle soreness (DMOS) often associated with intense weight training and other exercising."