You’re probably asking yourself if you should stretch before a workout because you have consistently heard contradictory statements about stretching before, and even after exercise.
First you hear you should ABSOLUTELY stretch before a workout. Then, you hear, it will decrease your performance and/or lead to injury. This is only the first set of common contradictory statements about stretching among many.
My name is Brennen Elboeck and I am a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist. I am also the founder of Personal Trainers at Home. Throughout my career, I have taken a lot of people through a lot of stretches as you could imagine.
The truth is, stretching is good before a workout and after a workout; although the exact protocol is highly dependent on the individual.
My goal throughout this article is to help you identify what type of stretching protocol you should use before and after exercise.
I can’t just outright tell you “do this” because it may not be right for you. We have to consider factors like:
- Exercise experience
- Current fitness level
- Current areas of poor mobility
- Past injuries
This is just to name a few.
Different Ways to Stretch
There are a few common ways of stretching including:
- Static Stretching
- Dynamic Stretching
- Ballistic Stretching
- PNF Stretching
The two we will focus on in this article is static stretching and dynamic stretching. The reason being is that these forms of stretching are safe and/or do not typically require assistance.
Static stretching is the most common way of stretching. This is probably the type of stretching you already generally know and envision.
Static stretching combines a low force and long duration stretch at the first point of restriction for whatever muscle group you are stretching.
For example, in a hamstring stretch you would lean forward until the first point of restriction. From here you would hold for roughly 20-60 seconds or longer and release. This is a good way of stretching for beginners and the advanced alike.
Interestingly, the reason behind how static stretching increases range of motion is not fully understood, but it is effective. The very general explanation behind why it is believed to work is that static stretching creates a relaxation response that allows for better tolerance to greater ranges of motion (ROM).
Long-term gains in ROM may come from an increased tolerance to stretching or added muscle mass that allows for a greater ROM.
Dynamic stretching is another common way of stretching that involves moving through a range of motion to the first point of restriction, but without holding the stretch for a prolonged period of time.
The longest you may hold a dynamic stretch is literally about a second!
An example of a dynamic stretch is walking lunges. If you’re new to exercise, you’re probably thinking to yourself “Walking lunges aren’t going to happen!”!
That’s ok, there are many different types of dynamic stretches out there! You will want to initially be cautious with dynamic stretches though because some of the movements can be hard and even potentially risky for the new exerciser!
Stretching Before Working Out
As stated previously, stretching before a workout is good. I would actually highly recommend that you do stretch before a workout. Stretching just needs to be done properly based on your body and goals. Let’s break down a few subsections to consider when stretching before exercise, then we will summarize.
Prevention of Injury
Research suggests that stretching before a workout actually does very little towards preventing injury risk.
There is however a good amount of evidence suggesting that the effects of a long-term stretching protocol will decrease injury rate and risk. This is achieved by improving your mobility and/or restoring proper movement.
Athletic performance can mean a lot of different things such as power, strength, or agility to name a few.
Research has been very back and forth on whether or not stretching before exercise decreases athletic performance. For us fitness professionals, and even the ones conducting the studies, we haven’t completely been able to give a confident answer.
With what we know now, stretching before a workout does appear to decrease strength and performance. Before you freak out and run with this though, there are a few factors to first consider!
- Static stretching seems to be the worst offender when it comes to pre-exercise stretching and negative effects on performance. Dynamic stretching, ballistic stretching and PNF stretching don’t have this same effect unless drastically overdone.
- Individuals with limited flexibility should perform static stretching before working out to help restore proper movement during exercise. This may also translate to better performance for these individuals. *As a bonus, using a foam roller before stretching a tight muscle group will increase your mobility results!
Stretching Before a Workout Summary
You always want to stretch before a workout and make it a part of your warmup.
If you know you have very tight hamstrings, very tight upper traps, etc., then you will want to stretch these with a long duration static stretch before exercise.
This will translate to better long-term gains in performance and mobility while decreasing injury risk. Ultimately the pros will outweigh the cons.
It’s important to make sure you are stretching the proper muscle groups too. If you are consistently stretching a muscle group that is not in a shortened state, you could potentially be making an existing problem worse.
This is why it’s important to work with a physical therapist or a certified personal trainer to help you identify what is tight and why.
On the other hand, if you have good mobility, you will want to choose a stretching technique that won’t decrease performance, as listed above, and incorporate it into your warmup.
Stretching After a Workout
Stretching after a workout, or even any other time except before a workout, is a good time to further work on your mobility without the risk of performance decreases.
Studies have found that static stretching in the moment, and static stretching long term does increase range of motion.
Static stretching of the hamstring complex with 30-seconds holds, five times a week for six weeks can produce significant changes in ROM.
Certain muscle groups appear to respond better than others as well based on the current research we have on static stretching.
However, based on my experience with clients, proper programming focused on mobility in needed areas will improve mobility anywhere to a certain degree! You may just have to use mobility techniques other than static stretching alone.
When it comes to stretching after a workout to reduce muscle soreness, there is adequate evidence to suggest the post-exercise stretching does not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
I would however recommend that you stretch the muscle groups you worked out on any particular day to maintain and/or increase mobility as you build strength and muscle.
Tips for a Better Stretch
There is a “mindfulness” component to stretching that I will leave you with from this article to get the most out of your stretches!
1. Activate the Antagonist Muscle
The antagonist muscle is the opposite of the agonist muscle or vice versa. For example, if you are stretching your chest (in layman’s terms), the antagonist to the chest would be the rear delts. You could also say that the chest is the antagonist muscle of the rear delts.
Without getting too information heavy, activating the antagonist muscle will allow for a deeper stretch of the agonist muscle.
If we go back to our example above, you could, for example, consciously activate the rear delts while stretching your chest to get a deeper chest stretch.
Here is a chart of commonly stretched muscles and their antagonist:
*The layman’s terms in parenthesis understandably doesn’t give the whole anatomical picture, but if you’re not a fitness professional it will give you a better idea of what muscle groups is what based on the terms you may already know!
|Pectoralis Major (Chest)||Posterior Deltoid (Rear Delt)|
|Deltoid (Shoulder)||Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)|
|Gastrocnemius (Calf)||Tibialis Anterior|
|Gluteus Maximus (Glutes)||Psoas (Hip Flexors)|
2. Focus on Your Breathing
When you first start your static stretch, you will be going to the first point of restriction as earlier stated in this article.
Once you have been at this first point of restriction, with mindful deep breathing, you can try and go slightly further into your stretch on an exhale. This is a great cue, but be careful and don’t overdo it!
Another thing to note is that you will eventually feel your muscle loosen up as various factors allow the muscle to release tension.
When you notice this, you can again take a deep breath, and attempt to go deeper into your stretch on the exhale.
It’s pretty cool stuff, and it really works!
So, Should You Stretch Before or After a Workout?
The verdict is, in a perfect world, you should be stretching before and after a workout; just with different goals in mind.
Stretching before a workout can essentially be thought of as movement preparation. Stretching after a workout is your time to further work on your mobility and/or maintain it.
If you need help identifying what muscles need to be stretched before a workout, send us a message!
- Clark, Michael, et al. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Jones & Barlett Learning, 2014.
- McGill, Erin, et al. NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. Jones & Barlett Learning, 2017.