When Is It Best to Stretch?

Client Question: I keep hearing that it’s best to save stretching for the end of a workout, but I just feel better if I limber up before my workout with stretching. I am also afraid of getting injured if I don’t stretch before my workout. What should I do?

Gina’s Answer: There are a few reasons why traditional stretching (holding each stretch for 20-30 seconds at the point where it’s pulling but not too painful) is best performed at the end of a workout. For one, the body stretches more easily when its super warm, loosened up, and fatigued. Another issue is that holding stretches has been found to weaken muscles temporarily, which is not great if you want to perform a workout or play a sport right after. Finally, stretching after a workout helps lengthen muscles that shorten during exercise, which over the long term will keep you more limber and keep injuries from developing.

However, it is true that you need to limber up before some workouts. Before a sport or cardio, elevate your heart rate and break a sweat with some light jogging or walking for 5 minutes or so before moving to your more strenuous work. Then stretch the body parts used for the activity, but for no more than 5-10 seconds each, or even ‘dynamic’ stretches like arm swings, leg kicks, or yoga poses for example. Try to go over the movement patterns you will be performing during your workout.

For weight-training workouts, it makes sense to ‘stretch’ the range of motion by performing the exercises with a lighter load to move through the motion you will be working out with. You might bench press with just the bar for 10-15 reps, or squat with just the bar. If your workouts are pretty light because you are new to weight training, you probably can just jump into your sets. 

If you have a particular injury or physical issue that requires extra stretching, you may need to do the 20-30 second holds for that body part given your circumstance. For instance, if you have low back problems and your physical therapist has advised you to hold stretches before your workout, you need to do them. In that case, the benefit to stretching before exercise outweighs anything else. For most of us, though, passive stretching before exercise is a waste of time, and might even be harmful.

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