Do you stretch before exercise? If so- ironically enough- you may be sabotaging your best efforts at getting fit.
Research over the past decade has shown little, if any, benefit to traditional-style stretching prior to exercise, and has suggested that these stretches may compromise the strength benefits of exercise. (By “tradition-style stretching”, I am referring to passive stretches where you relax and hold a given stretch for a period of time, like the hurdler’s stretch seen in the picture.) The problem with traditional stretching prior to activity is multifold. First- you are typical taking relatively “cold” tissues and trying to stretch them out. Muscles, ligaments and tendons stretch poorly- if at all- when they are not warmed up, giving almost no benefit to stretching. Secondly, these tissues are at considerably greater risk of sprain/strain injuries when stretched out cold. But what makes pre-workout stretching most counterproductive may be its effect on the nervous system. Passive stretches tell your body to “relax, and be calm”. They trigger you parasympathetic, “rest and relax” nervous system. The result is a body more ready for the bed than for the bench press. Studies have shown an actual loss in an individuals’ ability to generate strength during their workouts after passive stretching, negating some of the exercise benefit. As such, fitness experts are advising against pre-exercise stretching.
So, if you shouldn’t stretch out, what is the best way to get the body prepped for exercise? Simply put- MOVE.
Begin moving the muscles and joints that will be involved in the exercise you’ll be performing. Start off slowly and gradually, and increase in intensity over several minutes using activities like marching, arm swings, leg swings, jumping jacks, skipping/jogging, bodyweight squats, etc. Feel free to jump on the bike, elliptical, or rowing machine at the gym and perform five minutes of cardio at a gradually-increasing pace. Or simply do the activity you intend to be doing at a lighter intensity for several minutes as a warm up. For example, if you’re going to play tennis, swing the racquet lightly in different directions for several minutes to prep the body for play. If you’re a runner, fast-walk and then lightly jog for five minutes prior to your run. The objective is to provide warming blood to the tissues and joints that will be exercised, to lubricate the joints via movement, and to crank-up your sympathetic nervous system, which is designed to prep the tissues, organs and reflexes for activity. These dynamic, movement-based activities will get the body prepped much more effectively than traditional stretching, and allow you to get much more bang for your exercise buck.