From weekend warriors to elite athletes, stretching before exercise is a common practice, but new research has cast doubt on its effectiveness. Research suggests that stretching before exercise is unlikely to reduce your risk of injury, improve your performance or prevent sore muscles. However, there’s no evidence that stretching before or after exercise will do you any harm, either.
What’s the point of stretching?
Stretching for sport and exercise improves flexibility, which increases the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion; in other words, how far it can bend, twist and reach. Some activities, such as gymnastics, require more flexibility than others, such as running.
What happens when we stretch?
While the exact mechanics of what happens are not fully understood, regular stretching is thought to increase flexibility, both by making muscles more supple and by retraining the nervous system to tolerate stretching further. Flexibility from regular stretching gradually disappears once you stop stretching – typically after four weeks.
How much flexibility do I need?
It depends on your activity. The flexibility demands of a gymnast or a ballet dancer are clearly different to those of a runner. There is little to be gained for a jogger or runner from having the flexibility of a gymnast.
To generate power during exercise, the muscles and tendons store and release energy like a spring. Too much flexibility may reduce the muscle’s natural spring, which may be detrimental for activities involving running, jumping and sudden changes in direction, such as running, football or basketball.
Does stretching before exercising reduce the risk of injury?
The evidence strongly suggests that pre-exercise stretching does not reduce the risk of injury. Professor Rob Herbert, Senior Principal Researcher Fellow with Neuroscience Research Australia, took part in the three largest randomised trials on the effects of stretching. They all concluded that stretching had little or no beneficial effect on reduction in injury risk.
When do injuries occur?
Muscle injuries happen when the muscle is put under too much stress, typically when it is stretched under pressure – for instance, when lowering a heavy weight.
The injury occurs not because the muscle isn’t flexible enough, but because the muscle isn’t producing enough force to support itself. A muscle might not produce enough force, either because it is not strong enough or it didn’t contract at the right time for a particular movement.
Should I stretch before exercising?
Your decision to stretch or not to stretch should be based on what you want to achieve. “If the objective is to reduce injury, stretching before exercise is not helpful,” says Dr Shrier. Your time would be better spent by warming up your muscles with light aerobic movements and gradually increasing their intensity.
How should I warm up?
The purpose of warming up is to prepare mentally and physically for your chosen activity. A typical warm up will take at least 10 minutes and involve light aerobic movements and some dynamic stretching that mimics the movements of the activity you’re about to perform.
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