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Do Different Workouts Require Different Stretches?

Like, I don't need to stretch my (obviously massive) biceps if I'm gonna jump on the exercise bike, right?

Stretching is something I’ve dreaded ever since my ill-fated attempt to learn how to fight during second grade. This process involved spending seemingly endless and grotesquely boring moments sitting on a mat in a YWCA taekwondo classroom, stretching out my hamstrings when what I really wanted to be learning was how to kick people in the face like Tommy Lee!

All of that time spent stretching seemed totally excessive, and to this day, I still wonder if any of it was even necessary.

Of course it was necessary! Everyone knows you’re supposed to stretch before you work out!

That’s just it — we don’t know that. In fact, the bulk of the evidence is now starting to suggest that you shouldn’t stretch at all before you exercise.

It sounds crazy to the sensibilities of many people who’ve been taught otherwise for their entire lives, but renowned fitness trainer Jeff Cavaliere of Athlean X does an excellent job of explaining the rationale behind the theory. Stretching involves the lengthening of your muscle tissues, right? So if you hypothetically stretch all of your muscles before you start lifting weights, you alter the orientations of each one of those muscles.

If your muscles would ordinarily stop the weight from descending until a certain point, the stretching you’ve done may cause it to descend even further. If the positioning of the weight was once dependent upon the position your muscles locked it into before you began the load-bearing movement, your pre-workout stretch may cause the positioning of the weights to be slightly off from where you’d ordinarily place them.

To put it simply, stretching before a workout can throw your entire body out-of-whack, potentially increasing the likelihood that you’ll experience a debilitating injury rather than reducing it. Topping it off is the fact that pre-workout stretches have been shown to lead to decreased strength during the actual workouts. This means all of that time you spent down on the mat before you hit the weight room was actually making you weaker!

Another reason you stretch after an exercise and not prior is because exercise naturally warms up the muscles, and makes them more apt to react positively to a stretch, whereas stretching the muscles while they’re cold makes them more likely to tear.

That’s crazy! It sounds like I should reserve all of my stretching for when the workout is over.

That’s what I’d recommend. What this also means is that you can focus on stretching the areas you’ve trained as a standard component of your post-training regimen. So if your workout is focused on the muscles of your legs, your post-workout stretching should involve a battery of leg stretches. If you trained your chest and triceps, feel free to stretch those out thoroughly after you’ve trained as well. But again, the very last thing you want to do is stretch out your chest and triceps before your training session, or you may lower the bar during bench presses to a point where your muscles aren’t prepared to power the weight back up again.

If I shouldn’t stretch before I lift or exercise, what should I do?

You should warm up your muscles instead. Warming up increases the blood flow through them, which reduces the eventual muscle soreness and prepares your body for physical activity. Most warmups consist of relaxed or slower-paced versions of the activities you’ll ultimately be training in. If you’re swimming, warm up by swimming slowly. If you’re running, warm up by jogging. However, preparing for a half marathon by doing a set of squats isn’t the best use of your preparation time any more than you’d prepare for a bench-press contest by participating in a 5K fun run

So does my workout type change the way I should stretch?

Honestly, not really. The type of stretching that’s recommended after a multi-mile run is almost identical in function to the variety of stretching that you’re advised to perform after any other sort of lower-body training. Generally speaking, leg stretches are leg stretches, and whatever body parts you train, you should stretch. 

I can’t say it enough, so I basically have to conclude with it: Just make sure you perform your stretching after you train so that your muscles don’t react unpredictably in the presence of heavy weights. Because you never truly respect just how heavy a weight is until you’re no longer in the position to fight back against it.