Do I Really Need to Stretch Before and After Exercise?
Stretching before and after exercise reduces pain and injury risk - ever so slightly
A 2005 review published in the Journal of Athletic Training looked at existing studies on the effects of pre-and-post-workout stretching. The study found that stretching before and after a workout led to an average 2% reduction in pain over the next 72 hours, as well as a 5% reduced risk of injury.
So, while not remarkable, that’s something. In any case, the review suggests that stretching before a workout is to your benefit.
But warm-ups are more important when it comes to injury prevention…
A review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine noted that a handful of previous studies done on stretching had found significant benefits for injury prevention. One particular study on football players found that injury rates were reduced by 75% in the group which stretched.
However, in this study and the others which matched its results, stretching was combined with a general warm-up routine prior to exercise.
Warm-ups are commonly recommended as a way of staving off injury, and other research has found them to be an effective way of improving power and overall athletic performance in sports.
Therefore, it seems that a proper warmup that includes some stretching would be more effective for injury prevention than stretching alone.
And though static stretching seriously improves flexibility…
Static stretches are stretches which are held for a significant amount of time. A 2009 study published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders found that static stretches significantly improved muscle flexibility in people who had been previously injured. The study’s authors note that this result matches previous research findings about the effects of stretching.
Improved flexibility can indirectly combat muscle imbalances and potential injury, as it enables superior posture and form, and may keep the body’s joints from being overly stressed in one direction or another.
Static stretching too much before exercise may not be advantageous…
As noted by a 2017 study published in Research in Sports Medicine, excessive stretching before a run has been linked to reduced running performance for up to one hour following the stretches.
This is likely because static stretching reduced some of the muscular tension which is required for effective running. It’s important to note, though, that this study was only observed in the context of long-distance, endurance running events.
Generally speaking, it’s thought that static stretching could impair explosive movement or strength performance, so may not be ideal as a pre-workout warm-up.
While it’s dynamic stretching that warms up the muscles properly…
Dynamic stretches are quick, ‘pumping’ movements where the stretch is performed in short ‘reps’. Unlike static stretches they prepare your muscles for the job at hand, bringing your muscles close to the range of motion limit they’ll need, without pushing them to exceed it. These stretches also warm your muscles’ core temperatures correctly, and mimic movements you’ll actually use in your fitness activity, unlike the often-unnatural holds of static stretching.
By keeping moving, these help you ‘warm-up’ into your exercise regime, as opposed to going from a series of still positions straight into explosive activity.
Of course, no two bodies are the same, and any experienced fitness-fanatics will have long since figured out what works best for them.
But taking the above into account, it’s generally advised that a series of dynamic stretches are used as a warm-up before exercise, helping prepare the body for the kind of activity it’ll actually handle, while static stretches are done after exercise, to keep flexibility and reduce the risk of injury.
To help get you started, here are a handful of stretches you could be performing to warm up, and cool down, when you exercise.
Stretches to perform before a workout
This helps stretch the hip flexors and actives the legs and glutes, while the twisting motion kicks your core rotation into action.
- Step into a lunge, bending at your knee until your forward leg makes a right angle.
- Sink your hips, bringing your back leg down until it is parallel with the floor from the knee to your ankle.
- Once you’ve made the lunge, gently twist toward the side you are lunging forward with, until you feel the stretch in your core.
- Keep moving forward, repeating this motion in sequence for 10 reps.
This dynamic stretch is a great warmup for runners, as it mimics the top of a running stride.
- Walk forward at slow pace
- As you raise a leg, grab it with your hands, by the shin, and tuck it right up towards your chest. Your other leg should keep you balanced, particularly if you step into your toes for leverage.
- Release the leg, step onto it and make several steps to regain balance before repeating this movement with the opposite leg.
- Complete 10 reps of this, 5 for each leg.
Stretches to perform after a workout:
Yoga supine pigeon pose
The yoga supine pigeon pose stretches out the hip flexor muscles, and may also help to reduce lower back pain.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, and your feet planted on the floor.
- Lift your left leg, and place your ankle across the thigh of your right leg.
- Grab your right leg by the shin or the back of the thigh, and pull it gently towards your chest until you feel the stretch.
- Repeat with the opposite leg.
Pull-up bar hangs
Pull-up bar hangs are a stretch with multiple benefits all rolled into one, including decompressing the spine and stretching out the lats.
- Grab onto a pull-up bar and let yourself ease into a controlled, dead hang, with no tension in your muscles.
You can get more cooldown ideas in our beginner guide to cooldown exercises here.