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When Is The Best Time To Stretch, Before Or After Exercise?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 29 August 2017
Hits: 8066

The importance of maintaining our flexibility or mobility of joints in order to move well is very important but just how is it best to do that. We have all been convinced that spending time holding static stretches is the best way and we should always do this before exercise to prevent any injuries. If there is one thing I have learned in 12 years of working in rehabilitation with people suffering severe injuries to elite athletes looking for sporting performance that there is no absolutes, there is no black and white, and only a lot of grey area. And when it comes to stretching not only are many of the age old beliefs incorrect, but the exact opposite is what is required! But not always! This is definitely one of the most confusing topics to discuss, as many times I will contradict myself and say do not do this, and the very next minute I tell that is exactly what you should do! The reason for this contradiction is we are all very unique with what out body needs, we just have to be smart and listen to the signals our body is giving us. One thing is for certain we all need to devote some time to restoring optimal flexibility. How we might do this can vary a lot, which is what I will show you in this article.

When Is It The Best Time To Stretch?

I always like to use the comparison of elite level athletes such as Roger Federer, Usain Bolt etc as they are perfect examples of knowing exactly how to take care of their body. They perfectly understand the laws of health, and appreciate the benefits of flexibility and mobility training. They do not necessarily need a science geek to show them stats, they know this by many years of training and learning from mistakes that made them so great. They understand that if they train hard, they must devote time to recovery and rest or their performance will suffer. We might not be elite level athletes but we can take their learning and apply this to our bodies we too can move free of pain, and to our own level of high performance.

Most martial arts and athlete training programs for weightlifters, gymnasts, sprinters incorporate rigorous stretching routines as an integral part of their development. But what you will also never elite athletes do is a series of static stretches right before competing. Why?
It makes them perform poorly and increases chance of injury! How ironic, as most of you would think it would prevent injury right? Research has proven that there is a significant reduction in muscle strength endurance after static muscle stretching. It makes no sense that if you are about to compete, and need to be at your strongest, that you would want to take the stage in a weakened state. 

What you see instead, is athletes use an extended warm up to prepare the muscles and joints for the upcoming competition.

In the recent world championships we saw Usain Bolt break down with what appeared to be a calf injury, but after the race he claimed he was not injured instead that he was not warm enough. The pre race TV announcements took so long and in the cold weather his body had cooled down too much from his warms ups that it affected his performance. Note that it was not a tight muscle but his lack of warm up that contributed to his cramping! A warm up for a 100m sprint could take as long as 30 minutes, even though the race itself is lucky to last 10 seconds! The same is true for all the great sports like this.

The message is clear from elite athletes that warming up prior to exercise is better than static stretching. But what does the research say, and does this relate to the everyday person?

What Does The Science Say?

There is really two mechanisms may explain why pre-exercise stretching is detrimental to performance.

  1. Firstly, stretching damages the contractile proteins in skeletal muscle.
  2. Secondly, stretching reduces one’s ability to recruit skeletal muscle.

Skeletal muscle contains thick filaments and thin filaments that are connected by cross-bridges. When a nerve signal reaches the muscles, the thin filaments slide over the thick filaments. However, movement cannot occur if the cross bridges between the filaments are broken during static stretching. The nerve signals that initiate muscle contraction are electrical in nature. Thus, electrodes can be used to monitor muscle activity. In humans, such studies have shown that muscle activity and force production are reduced after stretching. Research suggests that stretching produces some kind of neural inhibition that is detrimental to performance. This research is supported by a study showing that balance and reaction time are also impaired after static stretching.

What does all that jargon mean in simple language? It basically means that stretching weakens the nervous system which weakens the muscles and everything from coordination, balance, speed, strength and power is diminished for a period of time straight afterwards.

What Does This Mean For You?

Well if you are going to the gym to do your workout, make sure you get there early enough to do a warm up. But don't worry about static stretching. A light jog, cycle for 10 minutes or even 5 minutes on the rowing machine followed by some dynamic movements would be perfect. Another purpose of this initial warm-up is to prepare the mind for the workout ahead. It is a time to focus and concentrate, leaving all outside distractions and stressors out the door. But what do I mean by dynamic movements?

These are exercises or movements that are similar to what you are about to use in your workout. This could be anything from walking lunges, hip extensions and monster walks as various forms of a dynamic warm up for the legs and maybe some light cable work for the upper body. Something that mimics the actions you are about to use. The elite athletes will need an extended warm up that has elements of technique drills as well, but you will only need a few minutes and often you can use the first set of the upcoming exercise as a dynamic drill.

The very first set of each exercise you should always devote to being a warm up set, using loads of 20-25% lighter than what you are likely to use in the following sets.

For example Nathan in the video below will often practice a full set of 15-20 reps of light bodyweight squats, followed by a set with 40-50 kg on the barbell before getting into 3-4 heavy sets of 100-140kg sets. This way he can evaluate if his body is moving well and prepared for the extreme work he wants to perform. The lower loads are enough to warn him if something is not right but not heavy enough to do any damage. He can use some mobility drills to address any areas of concern, assess any technique flaws before attempting the heavy work. If all feels fine he knows he is able to push the limits feeling safe that there is no restrictions or compensating present.

The Benefit Of A Dynamic Warm Up Over Stretching

The dynamic warm up has several advantages over the traditional static stretching routine such as:

  1. It involves continuous movement, it maintains warmth in your body and muscles. I have found that many athletes drop their core temperature by 2-3° after sitting and stretching for 5-10 minutes. (remember Usain Bolt, this is not a good thing)
  2. It prepares the muscles and joints in a more specific manner than static stretching
  3. It enhances coordination and motor ability as well as revving up the nervous system – benefits which are particularly important for people who are still learning how to move.
  4. Finally, and possibly most importantly, it prepares the mind for the workout ahead. Proper mental preparation for training is vital and,the dynamic warm-up encourages people to focus and concentrate on the task at hand.

    Some People Should Not Stretch At All!

    You might be thinking I am completely crazy, but as I mentioned at the start there are some people who fall into the category of TOO flexible. This person is someone with hypermobility or someone who has devoted a lot of time to increasing their joint range of motion. While we all think it looks great to see people perform amazing Yoga poses, this person poses serious risk to their joints. Too much laxity is just as bad as not enough, actually I would go as far to say it is worse, for there is a real risk of dislocation a joint! This is actually something I am seeing more often these days, in particular with females, and anyone who spends a lot of time with Yoga, Dancing and gymnastics.

    Warning signs of problems with this people is cracking and clicking of joints, spinal and neck problems and constantly searching for ways to loosen up even though they are significantly more flexible than the average person. The lack of stability in this person will create stiffness in joints which will provide many trigger points and limited movement. Typical health treatments for injury will fail this person, and make matters worse for their problem is not a lack of mobility, but a lack of stability and strength! Their solution is to actually stiffen up with strength, not to loosen something already loose.

    Below is a great video to watch about hypermobility if you suspect you are this person

    What About Foam Rolling Or Releasing Trigger Points?

    Trigger points develop when you need to use muscles to compensate or substitute for other muscles because of weakness or instability at other areas of the body. The muscle that works overtime to create extra stability becomes over stressed and increases in tension. Stretching this muscle is pointless and in many cases makes the trigger point worse. For while it feels tight it is in fact overstretched and the trigger point deep within the muscle is trying to restore the muscle back to it's original length.

    This is very common in shoulder and neck areas where people who have adopted poor posture for long periods of time overstretch muscles around the shoulders making them weak and consequently the shoulder unstable. Also very common to Piriformis Syndrome and ITB friction and hip problems with knee pain and back pain. (see our article How To Get Rid Of Piriformis Syndrome for more detail on this). Stretching only serves to make these trigger points worse. What is needed is to release the trigger point and very quickly follow up with the corrective strengthening and stability training exercises to prevent the trigger point coming back. If you suffer with chronic neck and shoulder pain you will find out exactly how to release these trigger points and follow up with corrective exercises in our Shoulder Pain Report you can get by clicking here.

    Below is 2 videos of how to release two very common trigger points, one in the shoulder area and the other in the piriformis muscle.

    What About Stretching DURING A Workout?

    This is where it starts to get contradictory. For as I just said that stretching weakens muscles, and is not a good thing for performance, there is still a place for using this in training. This information can be very helpful when trying to restore muscle imbalance and is known as reciprocal inhibition. Many clients who train with us regularly will have experienced us using this method in their training. This is when hyper tonic muscles have an inhibitory effect on the opposing muscles. In simple terms one group of muscles is so overactive it prevents the weaker opposing muscles from working further exacerbating muscle imbalance, dysfunction and pain. For the weaker muscles to be able to work we must "shut down" the dominating and overworking muscles and the best way to do this is by using stretching. We will often use aggressive methods known as PNF stretching to do this. Also known as "contract, relax stretching".

    This is where we force a contraction on the opposing side of the muscle being stretched to force a greater reflex inhibition and weakening of the dominant muscle. Again just as with the hyper mobile person and trigger point release, this is pointless if not followed up immediately with the corrective exercises and movements that will in turn stabilize joints and strengthen the weakened muscles.

    A good example would be for knee pain where we stretch the quadriceps prior to using a movement such as a lunge that requires the hips and quads to be lengthened allowing correct pelvis alignment to recruit the weak glutes and hamstrings.

    Below is an example of this in action with knee pain

    I Prefer To Use Mobility Drills Over Stretching For Changing Movements

    Just to confuse you even more this is where we might use what are referred to as mobility drills in between sets during a workout. What is the difference between stretching and a mobility drill you might ask? In simple terms flexibility is the capacity of a single joint or muscle to move through its full range of motion. Stretching is specific to a particular movement or joints and is often held for long periods of time or used as the PNF contract relax method.

    Whereas mobility is freedom of movement. It is not limited to a single joint but a combination of joints and is more movement based as opposed to holding one particular muscle with increased length for a period of time. This is quite confusing to explain at times for this is not limited to just one area but how a combination of several work together. An example would be someone has optimal flexibility at the hip, knee and ankle yet when they squat they lack freedom of movement. This is not a flexibility problem but a mobility and stability problem affecting how they move.



    For people not in pain, but also not peforming a movement freely these drills are awesome, and much more effective than stretching! The brain can relate to this drill and be able to adequately use this new information when you next perform the exercise you are struggling with. As opposed to stretching which does not correspond with any movement.

    Good article to read on this is Mobility & Flexibilty Explained

    Below is a pictures of of a drill we like to use for people struggling with squats and lunges. Click here to watch the video.

    Does This Mean Static Stretching Is Dead?

    No absolutely not! We have come full circle now and for the most of it we have been giving stretching a bad rap. But you still need to use stretches and as you have seen for some people they can be used during workouts too. Some people may need to back off on stretching and spend more time with stability training, maybe using mobility drills to preserve their range of motion. But for most of us the best time to do our static stretches is at the end of a workout and even better is late at night right before bed.

    This is because the body does most of its tissue healing at night, and when you lengthen short tight muscles before bed they heal in a lengthened position for a long period of time before you shorten it again. Only stretch what is tight, for stretching loose muscles creates trigger points and exacerbates muscle imbalances. Just be certain that you are only stretching muscles that need stretching.

    And ALWAYS, ALWAYS follow up with stability and strength training exercises for stretching on it's own without addressing the weakness of the opposing muscles means you will only tighten back up again!

    Good article to read about this is Stability Training What Is It Really & Why It Is So Important

    Summary

    We certainly covered a lot of ground with this article and I hope you now have a much better understanding of stretching. To recap here is the main points.

    1. ALWAYS warm up before training or sports
    2. Perform specific dynamic drills and a warm up set with weights
    3. Do not overstretch
    4. Release trigger points with massage but immediately follow up with exercises to correct the instability or weakness
    5. Use stretching of tight muscles between sets if injured
    6. Use mobility drills between sets for movements you struggle with
    7. Use static stretching at the end of your workout
    8. Use static stretching late at night right before bed

    As mentioned at the beginning there is a lot of things to consider when applying a program that works for you. You cannot follow another person's plan for they are different to you. You must identify where your weaknesses are and use methods, exercises and strategies to correct them. Once you have done that you are now able to focus on performance gains and only have to look after things. So stretching never stops it just changes depending on how much you need to do. More is not better either, just aim to be balanced and you will move well. If you can move well you will crush your workouts, have loads of fun and achieve great fitness results.

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