Is stretching really that important? From the moment we begin participating in physical activity, we’re told stretching before a workout and stretching after a workout is imperative to enhance performance and avoid injuries. But is this actually true? And how long should you stretch for?
Amongst the endless chatter in the health and fitness space, let’s break through the noise and get to the bottom of stretching once and for all. Below, we dive into the importance of stretching, stretching before working out, how to stretch after a workout and more.
Why is Stretching Important?
There wouldn’t be much talk if there weren’t some weight to it. So, why bother stretching before or after a workout?
1. Improves Flexibility and Range of Motion
2. Reduces Muscle Soreness
For instance, you could walk or bike on your rest days, followed by stretching and foam rolling. This should help loosen things up and decrease any post-workout soreness.
3. Reduces Risk of Injury
As stated above, stretching allows us to perform exercises within their full range of motion, maintaining good form and technique. As a result, you’re less likely to face injury or pain.
4. Improves Athletic Performance
Since stretching can accelerate recovery and improve form, it can be a great natural performance enhancer. When we’re able to maintain good form, we may be able to even lift more weight since we’re loading the correct muscles efficiently and effectively.
Dynamic Stretches vs. Static Stretches
Not all stretches are created equal. In fact, there are two main types of stretches: dynamic and static.
Dynamic stretches involve active movements where the joints and muscles go through a full range of motion. These are usually performed as a series of movements and are often used as stretches done before exercise since they can improve blood flow and adequately warm up the body in preparation for a workout.
Static stretches, on the other hand, involve stretching a muscle (or group of muscles) to its farthest point and then maintaining or holding that position. This can help increase flexibility, as well as promote recovery. And this is why static stretches for post-workout cooldowns are often recommended.
Stretching Before a Workout
Stretching before a workout may reduce your odds of injuries and pain. Not stretching before a workout can mean you aren’t warmed up, which could also mean you won’t perform at your very best.
Including dynamic stretches as part of your warm up exercises before a workout is a great way to increase blood flow and prepare for your routine. So, what should you know?
The Best Dynamic Stretches for Pre-Workout
The exact dynamic stretches you perform depend on the type of workout you’re about to do. However, some dynamic stretches that may be useful pre-workout include arm swings, lunges, air squats, leg swings, torso twists, and more.
How Long to Stretch Before a Workout
Since the benefits of stretching before a workout involve the fact that it helps warm up the body, pre-workout stretches may last anywhere between five to 15 minutes—similar to a regular warm-up duration. Yet, the entire duration of time will depend on your upcoming workout. It may also be beneficial to throw in some jumping jacks or other more intense movements to increase your heart rate.
Pre-Workout Stretching Tips
- Before stretching, try doing a general warm-up, such as walking or jogging on the treadmill.
- Use dynamic stretches pre-workout to prepare the body for what’s to come.
- Choose your stretches based on your workout. For example, doing lunges, torso twists, air squats, and leg swings can be beneficial if you’re performing a leg day. Meanwhile, arm swings, the cat-and-cow, arms circles, shoulder rolls, and more may be more suitable for an arm or upper body day.
- Avoid static stretches pre-workout. While much-debated, this may increase your risk of injuries.
- Don’t forget to breathe!
- Listen to your body. If something doesn’t feel good, only go to the point before this. We don’t want to do more harm than good.
Stretching After a Workout
Stretching after a workout can help prevent muscle tightness and soreness. Generally, static stretches are recommended for an efficient cooldown routine; they can also be very relaxing after an intense workout.
The Best Static Stretches for Post-Workout
Static stretching exercises for your cool-down may include the hip flexor stretch, chest stretch, glute stretch, calf stretch, and more. Again, similar to dynamic stretches, the stretches you perform post-workout will depend on the exercises completed in your workout. For example, chest, bicep, tricep, and shoulder stretches are most appropriate if you just performed an intense upper body day. In contrast, performing leg stretches after leg day is also a great idea.
How Long to Stretch After A Workout
About five to 10 minutes is often good enough for a post-workout stretch. Yet, the length of time may depend on the muscles worked during your workout. Ideally, you should hold each static stretch for about 20-30 seconds.
Post-Workout Stretching Tips
- Try cooling down first to bring your heart rate down. For instance, try walking for about five minutes and then stretch after your walk.
- Focus primarily on static stretches, holding each for 20-30 seconds.
- Be gentle and move in a controlled way to avoid injury. If you experience pain, only go to the point before pain.
- Try to relax as much as possible. Practicing deep belly breathing during each stretch can help with this!
- Make sure you’re using the proper form. If something doesn’t feel right, adjust.
- Use tools like yoga straps, towels, or supportive objects to help take your static stretching routine to a whole other level. This can further prevent reaching, which may cause issues for beginners.
Stretching Exercises for Specific Muscles and Areas
Stretching Exercises for Lower Back
Popular stretching exercises for the lower back include:
- Cat-and-cow: Start on your hands and knees. Arch your back up like a cat, and then lower it down, lifting your head and tailbone. This motion should be fluid and gentle.
- Child’s pose: Kneel on the floor, sit back on your heels, and then lean forward, extending your arms in front of you on the floor. If possible, rest your forehead on the ground. Hold the position.
- Knee-to-chest: Lie on your back and pull one knee towards your chest while keeping the other leg flat or bent on the floor. Hold and then switch legs.
Stretching Exercises for Hamstrings
Some stretches for the hamstring muscles that you may want to consider include:
- Leg swings: Stand upright and hold onto a stable object for balance. Swing one leg forward and backward, keeping it straight. Repeat with the other leg.
- Lunge with torso twist: Perform a forward lunge and, as you lunge, twist your torso towards the leg that is forward. Alternate legs as you move forward.
- Standing hamstring stretch: Stand and cross one foot in front of the other. Bend forward at the waist, keeping your legs straight, and reach towards your toes.
- Seated hamstring stretch: Sit on the ground (or a chair) with one leg extended straight and the other leg bent inward. Lean forward from the hips towards the foot of the straight leg.
Stretching Exercises for the Back
Stretching the back regularly can help prevent the common, and dreaded, back pain. Luckily, many back stretching exercises also stretch other areas of the body. If you want to target the back, you can try the aforementioned cat-and-cow stretch, child’s pose stretch, or knee-to-chest stretch.
Additionally, stretching the mid back can relieve some tension. To do this, extend your arms straight in front of you, grasping your hands together with your palms face in. Bow your head into the space created by your arms and hold.
Stretching Exercises for the Hip
Dynamic lunges and leg swings are great options to stretch the hip. On top of this, other stretches may include:
- Pigeon pose: Start in a plank position, bring one leg forward with the knee bent and the foot near the opposite hip, and extend the other leg behind you. Lower your hips to the ground and hold the stretch.
- Butterfly stretch: Sit down, bend your knees, and bring the soles of your feet together. Gently press your knees towards the floor with your elbows or hands, keeping your back straight.
Stretching Exercises for the Shoulder
Here are some great stretches to incorporate pre and post-shoulder workouts:
- Arm circles: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and extend your arms parallel to the floor. Circle your arms slowly, starting with small circles and gradually increasing to larger circles.
- Doorway stretch: Stand in a doorway with your arms raised and elbows bent so your forearms are against the door frame. Step forward with one foot and lean forward until you feel a stretch in your chest and shoulders.
- Basic shoulder stretch: Bring one arm across your body and use the other arm to pull it closer to your chest. Keep your arm straight and hold the stretch, then switch arms.
Stretching Exercises for the Legs
For the legs, the hamstring and hip stretches help prepare the body for exercise, as well as help cool down. Additional leg stretches you may want to add on leg day include:
- Calf stretch: Stand facing a wall with one foot in front of the other. Keep your back leg straight and press your heel into the floor. Lean into the wall to deepen the stretch.
- Quad stretch: Stand tall and hold onto a nearby sturdy object or wall for support. Bend your knee and hold your foot in your hand, bringing it all the way to your buttocks. Hold here.
- IT band stretch: Stand tall and cross one foot in front of the other. Place your hand on the of the leg behind and gently lean away from that same side. Hold here once you feel a stretch in the side of your leg.
Stretching Exercises for the Neck
Stretching the neck can help promote better posture and prevent tension around the upper back and shoulders. So, here are a few common stretches you may want to include in your routine:
- Neck rolls: Sit or stand with good posture. Slowly roll your head in a circular motion, clockwise and, then, counterclockwise. Keep the movements small and controlled.
- Side-to-side neck tilts: Gently tilt your head towards one shoulder and then to the other in a slow and controlled manner.
- Levator scapulae stretch: Gently pull your head diagonally down towards your armpit, stretching the muscle at the back and side of the neck. Hold when you feel a stretch.
- Trap stretch: Keeping your gaze and head facing forward, gently pull your head toward one shoulder, and hold here.
Stretching Exercises for Chest
The best stretch for the chest is the doorway stretch described above for the shoulders. However, a couple of other great chest stretches include:
- Standing chest expansion: Clasp your hands behind your back, straighten your arms, and gently lift your hands upwards, opening your chest and shoulders.
- Floor chest opener: Lie on your back on the floor, extend your arms to the sides, and bend your elbows to form a 90-degree angle, creating a “goalpost” arm position, and hold here.
What Should You Avoid While Stretching?
Surprisingly, it’s entirely possible to overstretch. Try to avoid excessive stretching, such as holding too long or doing more than three to five repetitions of one stretch.
When performing static stretching, try to avoid bouncing, as this won’t have the same effect and may actually lead to injury. Many people also make the mistake of holding their breath, which signifies the importance of mindfully breathing through each movement.
Lastly, maintaining good posture and avoiding rushing through your stretching routine is crucial to reap the full benefits.