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Before or after? When is stretching best?

Before or after? When is stretching best?

It’s amazing how often we do things because “that’s how it’s always been done.” The COVID pandemic has at least one silver lining; it has forced us to revisit old habits.

We’re reexamining everything, it seems, including how we exercise—with gyms closed and all the other disruptions. That brings an opportunity. We are rethinking whether it is better to stretch before or after exercise.

Before, not so great

If you’re over a certain age, you probably automatically think “before.” That’s how it was always done, right? Well-meaning yoga and exercise instructors, coaches and trainers continue to encourage the stretch before the workout. But science no longer supports that approach.

Research shows static stretching before exercise is not helpful and may actually cause injury. Stretching signals the muscles to relax and become more pliable. In fact, heading into a workout, you are about to need just the opposite.

Warm up, instead

We know warming up is the safer and more productive approach to prep for exercise. Light activity and putting your joints through their full range of motion increases blood flow and heart rate and gets the muscles warmed up and prepared for the workout. It may seem counterintuitive, especially if you have been trained to stretch before exercise. But it makes sense when you think about it. 

So when you play a game of soccer or go for a run—warm up the lower body with an easy jog or running in place. If you’re about to play a round of golf, do some relaxed practice swings and walking. Give your body what it needs, when it needs it. Warming up fills the need. Stretching does not have the same effect.

Stretching tells the muscles to relax and start to shut down. Exercise puts them at the opposite end of the spectrum, demanding activity and flex. Even if it feels good, stretching before can leave you open to injury. Think of pulling a hot glass from the dishwasher and filling it with ice cold liquid. The glass can crack from the strain.

After makes sense

Static stretching after a workout is a good idea. Exercise puts a load on muscles they are not accustomed to, causing microscopic damage. The body recovers by repairing itself and that makes the affected areas stronger. Stretching encourages muscles to elongate and relax, lining tissue up and relaxing spasm. That enhances the repair and streamlines the strengthening process. 

So warm up first and enjoy the stretch after. That’s making the most of physical activity.