In a world where everything is labeled #FakeNews, no topic is safe. For example: stretching. Numerous stories on the internet say stretching before exercise is bad for you because it can make working out less effective — or even increase your risk of injury. But how is that possible? We’ve all been taught since forever that it’s essential to stretch before doing anything. So should we really stop? Let’s find out.
Wait, is stretching really not doing me any good?
It’s not quite that simple: There’s a time and a place for stretching, certainly. But physical therapist and running coach Michael Conlon, owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City, says that right before exercise isn’t when it should be done. “There’s a definite need for a warm-up before any activity, and that warm-up should very much replicate what you’re about to put your body through,” he explains. “Before I run, I don’t go through a routine of static stretching [the type we’re all used to, where you stretch while holding still], because running isn’t a static activity. I go through a 5- to 10-minute routine that’s going to prepare myself and my body for running.”
Okay, but if I do stretch, will it actually hurt me or my workout goals?
You can find a few stories out there with catchy headlines that suggest stretching can hinder your performance. Some cite studies that find that people can’t jump as high or run as fast right after stretching, since the muscle will temporarily have less elasticity and snap. The problem with these studies is that the subjects stretched for more than a minute (much longer than most of us), and were then immediately tested for jumping and speed. Essentially, the conditions of the experiment were somewhat removed from the real world.
Some of the studies even conclude that you can outright injure yourself by stretching — that it can mask muscle pain and make you numb to when you’ve overworked your muscles. While Conlon believes that stretching is unlikely to increase your chances of injury during the activity, he says that it might increase your chance of injury while stretching. “When people do the quad stretch, they’re taking their foot and flexing their knee to 135 degrees, lengthening a muscle that may not have lengthened that far in a long time,” he says. People don’t really need to stretch their tissues as far as they can before an activity, he continues, pointing out that it’s not exactly dangerous to do static stretching — it’s just not doing you that much good.
How far should I ideally stretch a muscle when I warm up?
There’s no need to throw your leg up on a barricade and wince in pain while you stretch your hamstring: “Just a little bit more range of motion than what [you] need for the sport,” advises Conlon.
So what should I be doing instead?
Rather than just stretching as far as you can, you should be gradually warming up — and with movement, says Conlon. Below, you can watch an example of a complete pre-running warm-up created by Conlon. The basics are that, while you’re welcome to warm up your muscles with stretching, don’t stay still: Go in a little, and come back out.
Movements that incorporate several muscles at a time while teaching your body stability are best. That’s why, for running, lunges are a go-to warm-up exercise for Conlon, as well as any activity that involves moving forward. If you’re playing basketball, some cutting and landing drills, or plyometrics, work excellently, as they’re similar motions to those you’d perform on a basketball court. For weightlifting or CrossFit, try some air squats before you do your actual squats; do pull-ups with a stretch band before doing real pull-ups; or do deadlifts with just the bar before putting weight on it. “No one should just go into their sport and start deadlifting 300 pounds,” says Conlon.
If stretching doesn’t really help, how come I always see pro athletes stretching before games? Are they just superhumans whose methods don’t apply to mere mortals like myself?
“It makes me cringe,” admits Conlon. “People think that because pro athletes are pro athletes, they know what they’re doing, and that’s not really true.” He would know, having recently worked with an (anonymous) professional baseball player to completely revamp his program. In the same way a racecar driver doesn’t necessarily understand aerodynamic engineering, pro athletes don’t always have a deep understanding of anatomy and physiology, so they, like the rest of us, are still doing the same things their gym teachers taught them back in elementary school.
So should I ever static stretch?
Over time, stretching can build flexibility, which is great for any activity you do, but save it for a time when you aren’t working your muscles hard. And again, do it gradually — don’t just jump right in and immediately yank your muscle as far as it can go.
What about stretching after an activity? Is that still a thing?
A proper cool-down with movement is much better. Here’s a cool-down regimen Conlon created for runners — remember, just as the possibility to injure yourself exists while warming up, static stretching with fatigued muscles isn’t the best idea.
What if you’re old and can’t really work out, but want to maintain your mobility? Is stretching a good idea then?
You’re never too old to move, and several fields of science are now recognizing that movement is the best medicine. Conlon says that if an elderly person wants to just go out and walk, they probably don’t need to go through a stretching routine. They could definitely do Conlon’s lunge matrix routine in the above videos, though, since it builds strength and stability — two very important things for everybody, but especially older people.
What about very pregnant women trying to save their backs?
Because of hormonal changes in pregnant women, it’s best to be extra careful to prevent injury. Conlon says pregnant women may in fact need stability more than they need flexibility — and again, his lunge matrix is great for that. Most importantly, building stability is a far better solution for back pain than stretching.
So is stretching basically a waste of my time?
Not entirely. In the right context, it’s fine, but in the wrong context, it does you harm. It’s a bit like your toaster — great at what it does in the kitchen, but the warning not to use it in the bath is there for a reason.