What does your warm up routine look like? A little cardio to get the heart rate up followed by some stretching to “get loose”? That is the typical warm up I see when people are new to exercise. When asked about the stretching, usually people will say something like “I’m stretching so I don’t get hurt.” Can stretching really prevent injuries? Let’s find out.
Stretching can be beneficial. When we passively stretch, we lengthen the muscle for a period of time, which can do a couple things. It can provide a temporary increase in range of motion. It can promote blood flow to the area, which improves recovery as damaged tissue can be repaired. It feels good, which can provide some neurological improvements in the way the brain signals to the muscle.
On the surface, that all looks like great stuff! Why would you not want more range of motion and recovery? Let’s look a little deeper.
Stretching before a workout can provide a temporary improvement in range of motion. The next thing to ask yourself, is, do you need that increase in range of motion? Think about a squat. Can you squat to depth without stretching? If yes, you probably don’t need to do very much, if any, stretching prior to squatting. If you can’t, then you may need that temporary improvement in range of motion. When warming up, the goal is to be able to optimize and prime the ranges of motion you will be in. Stretching can put you beyond these ranges of motion, which may actually increase your risk of injury by trading out your stability for more flexibility.
This ties into another important point. If you have a hard time getting into a certain range without stretching. Consider stretching just to the point where you can get into the range comfortably, then begin loading the movement. By loading the movement and getting into the proper range of motion, your brain will begin making the connections needed to get into this range, regardless of load. Thus, your flexibility and stability will improve. This is when stretching should be used prior to working out.
Some of the other benefits of stretching, such as increased blood flow to an area are great for recovery. And in accordance, we want to then put stretching at the end of a session in a cooldown. Stretching will help trigger your body to activate it’s parasympethic nervous system (rest and digest). This calms your body down and creates an environment for recovery. When you are starting a workout session, you DO NOT want this. You want your body primed and ready to go, not ready to chill and recover.
While stretching has benefits, we want to save it for the end of a session, unless it is needed to temporarily increase range of motion for a particular movement. When done at the beginning of the session, only stretch to the range you NEED. Too much stretching can actually increase your risk of injury. Instead, focus on using stretching as a recovery tool by allowing your body to more quickly go into a recovery and repair state.
If you need help deciding where your stretching should go during your workout, schedule a call with one of our coaches and they will help you out! You can do that here: