There are many opinions and theories on the subject of stretching as it pertains to working out or engaging in physically demanding activities. Most notable is the confusion that surrounds the question “Is it better to stretch before or after I workout, exercise or play a sport?”
There is no right answer—at least not yet—as to when you should stretch. There are many credible research studies that conclude there are benefits to stretching before or after you workout. Several people find it beneficial to stretch both before and after physically demanding activities. The common thread agreed upon is that stretching, regardless of when, provides benefits to developing and maintaining a healthy musculoskeletal system.
Stretching helps to improve the range of motion through your various joints. By stretching, you are training your muscles to begin and complete tasks through their proper and full range of motion, which in turn helps decrease the amount of stress on your joints. This can also help to improve and correct muscle imbalances, as well as your posture. Stretching aids in maintaining normal muscle functions; large muscles, stabilizers and small muscles can work more efficiently. The result is you having a healthy and dynamic body.
It is important to perform a warm-up activity prior to stretching. This prepares your muscle tissue for stretching, and it helps you to obtain all the benefits of stretching. After your warm-up, you are ready to engage in stretching. The type of stretching that you are probably most familiar with is called static stretching.
Static stretching is when you perform a stretch by lengthening your muscle tissue in a slow, controlled manner until you reach the limit of your range of motion. Bending over to touch your toes and then holding it when you reach your limit is an example of static stretching; some people only need to reach to their shins to feel this stretch their muscles, while others can put their hands flat on the ground. Each person’s limits can differ from person to person and stretch to stretch.
The key to static stretching is to slowly ease into it until you reach a point where your muscles are tighter than they are while engaging in typical, everyday movements. Then, gradually increase the range of motion as you feel yourself loosen up. It is also important that you remember to breathe; this helps you to relax and increase the blood flow to your muscle tissue. Hold each stretch for about 20 seconds; then slowly ease out of the stretch as you allow your muscles to return to their natural resting position. It is ideal to perform two to five sets of each stretch with a 15 to 30 second rest between each stretch.[i]
As you gradually increase your range of motion and flexibility, stretching becomes more comfortable and feels more natural. Like most fitness related activities, as you continue to challenge your body stretching, you will progress a little each day. Incorporate stretching into your workout program, and though the visual evidence won’t be as apparent as the results you obtain from weight lifting or cardio, you will feel better and raise the ceiling of your fitness potential!
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[i] Information obtained from http://web.mit.edu/tkd/stretch/stretching_5.html#SEC54