The Truth About Stretching

I am often asked the questions, “Should you stretch a tight muscle? Can you overstretch? Is it best to stretch before or after exercise, or both?”  Today, I am going to break down the indications and contraindications of stretching, and when stretching is most beneficial to reduce the risk of injury.


Stretching definitely has its benefits. Stretching muscles can help to reduce muscle tension and increase blood flow to the muscle, which is said to reduce risk of injury. Stretching also increases joint flexibility, which may improve the overall range of motion of a joint.  However, you do not want to create joint mobility without first having joint stability.

Timing: Stretching is best performed after a workout, in order to lengthen muscle back to its relaxed state and to decrease muscle soreness. Stretching is also beneficial when sitting or remaining static in one prolonged position. Ever feel the need to stand up or reach your arms overhead when sitting for 1 hour? This is our body telling us that we need to stretch to alleviate stiffness from occurring.


In recent studies, stretching statically for 30 seconds prior to playing a sport or exercising may, in fact, increase one’s risk for injury. Stretching before exercising may result in a loss of power or strength to that muscle. Where one may feel tightness in the body, it may actually be a sign of weakness in the opposing muscle (i.e. the hamstrings feel tight, but the quad is actually weak, causing overcompensation of the hamstrings). Unless weak muscles are addressed, general exercise makes the strong muscles and tissues even stronger, and the weak muscles and tissues weaker. Activities involving repetitive movements, like running and swimming, should minimize stretching, especially at the joints where excessive mobility can cause injury (i.e. the shoulder in swimming).

So how can one effectively warm up prior to exercising? According to an article from the NY Times, “You need range of motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissue that will be needed for the task ahead.”  The best way to stretch a muscle before exercise is to stretch muscles while moving, a technique known as dynamic stretching. This may increase power, flexibility and range of motion of a joint. Examples of dynamic exercises include squatting, lunging, and high kicks with opposite arm and leg movements (See below for pictures to demonstrate)

In addition, for a beneficial pre-workout regimen it is best to do a warm up of approximately 40% of your maximum heart rate (120 minus your age) for about 5-10 minutes, and then begin the exercise, gradually increasing the intensity to 60-80% of your max. heart rate.

Examples of dynamic warm ups:

1. STRAIGHT-LEG MARCH (for the hamstrings and gluteus muscles) Kick one leg straight out in front of you, with your toes flexed toward the sky. Reach your opposite arm to the upturned toes. Drop the leg and repeat with the opposite limbs. Continue the sequence for at least six or seven repetitions.

2. HANDWALKS (for the shoulders, core muscles and hamstrings) Stand straight, with your legs together. Bend over until both hands are flat on the ground. ‘‘Walk’’ your hands forward until your back is almost extended. Keeping your legs straight, inch your feet toward your hands, then walk your hands forward again. Repeat five or six times.


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