Most of us learned growing up that it is good to stretch before exercise, but whether or not stretching is actually beneficial has been controversial among exercise physiologists. Most of these experts have concluded that stretching is beneficial if done after exercise, but whether it is healthy before exercise has been heavily debated.
Recently, four famous exercise researchers (one each from the UK, Australia, the US, and Canada) published a paper in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, and their overall conclusion was that pre-exercise stretching is helpful before some types of athletic activities, if done correctly.
To reach their overall conclusion, these researchers reviewed over 200 research studies on the subject. What they concluded was that holding a stretch for a long period of time (more than 1 minute) tended to cause more harm than good. And especially bad if this “static” stretching was followed immediately by the main athletic activity, without further warming up the muscles and joints.
People whose individual stretches were shorter than 30 seconds each, and who did something else to warm up their body—such as light jogging or use of an elliptical machine—were significantly less likely to tear or strain a muscle later during their sport or exercise.
“Dynamic stretching” was overall found to be a better activity than static stretching. Dynamic stretching involves elongating the muscle combined with moving your body, to heat up and increase the range of motion of whatever muscles and joints you will be using in your sport or exercise that follows. For example, before running, you might repeatedly bring your knee to your chest. For football, you might do some high kicks. Before weight lifting, dynamic stretching might include some pushups. Ask a coach or gym teacher which would be best for your activity.
Beyond elongating muscles, it is important to warm up your body before most activities, so, if you only do brief static stretches, you want to combine that with light aerobics such as easy jogging in place or on a treadmill, or easy pedaling on a bike or elliptical machine before your main activity. If you do dynamic stretches, your body may already be warmed up from the dynamic stretching alone.
One of the experts from the international study, Dr. Malachy McHugh, notes that “Runners and cyclists don’t have much risk for acute muscle strains”, so that stretching before these activities is less necessary (but warming up the body is still good). Stretching is most important before activities that involve jumping, sprinting, or other potentially muscle-tearing activities. Finally, remember that light stretching after exercise is good for everyone, no matter the activity.
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