When (and Why) to Stretch
The biggest question in stretching has been, and continues to be, “Should I stretch before or after I work out?” And if you ever looked for the answer, you know how much one contradicts the next. You get those who say you should stretch to warm up, others who say you should stretch to cool down, and still more who say you should never do either. Why, just the other day a woman, who was an athlete in her youth, told me how her trainers always confused the heck out of her on the issue of stretching. Her basketball coach had the team stretch before they played, and in track, she was told to do the exact opposite.
So which is it?
It’s neither. It’s both. And it depends. That’s because one size never fits all. People are too different. Bodies are too variant. You have to know your body and understand it before you can decide what it needs. Following one rote prescription for flexibility would be like giving the same advice to someone who had to lose weight as you would to someone who had to gain. It’s preposterous, yet it’s happening everywhere you turn when it comes to the folks doling out stretching advice.
The first thing you need to know is where you are on a continuum of flexibility, with one end being hyper-mobile, and the other, stiff as a board. You can just as easily be injured if you are too loose as you can if you are too tight. The point is, injuries happen on both ends of the spectrum for very different reasons. This, no one in the mainstream ever talks about, or even considers. They assume everyone is the same. It drives me nuts.
Instead, think of it where one extreme is being able to fold your torso to your legs, and the other is that you can barely bend at the waist. Consider average as a range where your fingers are somewhere between the floor and a few inches off if you try to touch your toes. But keep in mind that this only indicates how flexible/inflexible your hamstrings and back are. I’ve had people barely able to bend at all and then when we stretch to the side, they practically bend in two. It can be that one area is tighter and more restrictive than another, which will affect your overall ability to move. You may think you are tight, and you may be, but not necessarily everywhere. And with time, these imbalances become more pronounced.
So rule of thumb: the more flexible you are, the more you’ll want to stretch before strength exercises because strength helps stabilize your joints while stretching can “loosen” them. Here, strength helps balance out the stretch, which is the whole point in keeping your body healthy and safe. Similarly, on the other hand, if you are tight, stretch after you do strengthening exercises because that’s how you can offset making yourself tighter.
From there you can break it down even further. Because I had an injury (and learned the hard way) I stretch what’s tight and what’s loose separately. Tight, strong muscles (like quads) get stretched after I workout so weight training doesn’t tighten them more; and the loose, overstretched parts (like inner thighs from dancing) go first so that lifting weights afterwards helps add some tenability to the muscles to protect me.
That being said, also think about what you will be doing. If you are going to do an activity that requires a lot of strength, don’t do intense stretching right beforehand. A recent study showed that stretching immediately before weight-bearing squats had a negative impact on strength. This makes sense. But if you’re going into a workout like dancing, martial or aerial arts, gymnastics, skating, etc..., stretching before will prepare you extend to extend. Other than that, if there is not a specific goal to your exercise, just make sure you incorporate stretching into your overall routine to remain conditioned, mobile and free.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, pay attention to how you feel. If you feel tight, if you’re in pain, your body is trying to tell you something - something upon which stretching may have a huge and positive impact. Just remember though, in the end, you need to know your body and yourself before you start taking advice from people who don’t know you at all.
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