To Stretch or Not to Stretch Before a Workout

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Stretching before you exercise has become one of those automatic habits almost like brushing your teeth before bed. But studies show that stretching may not have the positive benefits we think it does, particularly if you are doing static stretching where you hold a position for 20 to 30 seconds. This may actually weaken your muscles making them more susceptible to injury.

The question remains, what should you be doing before you exercise?

Matt Bennett, a Toronto athletic therapist whose clients include the Maple Leafs, clarifies the stretching dilemma.

Q: Do you agree that stretching before exercise is bad? If so why?

A: Your muscles are a sponge, so when you stretch them, it’s like you’re ringing out the blood and decreasing the flow. By extending your muscle fibers, you’re actually decreasing the strength of your muscles. If you stretch and then do an activity, the strength may not actually be there so you’re more likely to pull something.

Q: What’s the best way to warm up before you exercise?

A: Before an activity, you want to do active stretches instead of static ones. This means things like arm circles, legs swings or any fluid stretch where you’re contracting and relaxing without holding. You want to warm up the body, increase blood flow, strength and range of motion.

Q: What about after a workout?

A: After exercise, it’s OK to do static stretches because the muscle has been active. At this point, you want to cool down the body and lower the blood flow. When muscles are warm, that’s when they’re able to get an increase in the range of motion as opposed to when your muscles are cold. Warm muscles allow the fibers to extend further so that you’re able to better stretch out fibres compared to when you’re cold.

Q: What type of static stretches should you do after a workout?

A: You should stretch whatever muscle you’re using. It depends on the activity or sport. For instance, if you went running, you would stretch out your quads, hamstrings and arms. You want to stretch out whatever muscles you’ve just used that might be tight.

Q: Yoga is all about the stretching. If stretching cold is bad, does this mean the zen of sports might actually be bad for you? Could the yoga craze finally come to an end once the word about stretching gets out?

A: There’s a lot of different types of yoga. They have different approaches to stretching. Moksha and Bikram are hot yogas so they’re probably better. Ideally, before doing yoga you want to warm up the body unless you’re doing a hot yoga. Often, people will walk in off the street and do a slow static yoga like Hatha, which is like stretching cold. A better approach would be to workout at the gym or bike ride and then finish up with a slow yoga. It’s easier on the muscles because there’s more blood flow which decreases the chance of injury.

Q: What about fast athletic yogas such as Ashtanga? How do they compare to Hatha?

A: Sometimes people do Ashtanga and they don’t have the strength. That’s when you get muscle tears. You want to make sure you have a baseline of strength. Ideally you do want to start with Hatha because a slower yoga will help a lot with posture. Once you get the overall core strength then you can move to Ashtanga where you go through the poses faster and more dynamically. When it comes to poses, always let pain be your guide. If it hurts don’t do it.

Written by Margo VaradiĀ  *Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.

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