The Truth About Stretching

Find out the best ways to stretch and the best times to do it.

From the WebMD Archives

Do any of these lines sound familiar?

  • You have to hold a stretch to get the benefit.
  • Don't bounce in the stretch -- you'll tear your muscle.
  • If you don't stretch before a workout, you'll hurt yourself.

Well, they're all wrong. But first, there's a bigger question to answer.

Do You Need to Stretch at All?

It's a good idea, says the American College of Sports Medicine. The ACSM recommends stretching each of the major muscle groups at least two times a week for 60 seconds per exercise.

Staying flexible as you age is a good idea. It helps you move better.

For example, regular stretching can help keep your hips and hamstrings flexible later in life, says Lynn Millar, PhD. She's a physical therapist and professor at Winston-Salem State University.

If your posture or activities are a problem, make it a habit to stretch those muscles regularly. If you have back pain from sitting at a desk all day, stretches that reverse that posture could help.

Simple Back Stretch

Exercise physiologist Mike Bracko recommends doing the "Standing Cat-Camel" as a work-related back stretch. Here's how:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent slightly.
  • Lean forward, placing your hands just above your knees.
  • Round your back so that your chest is closed and your shoulders are curved forward.
  • Then arch your back so that your chest opens and your shoulders roll back.
  • Repeat several times.

If your job keeps you in the same position all day, Bracko suggests doing 2-minute stretch breaks to reverse that posture at least every hour.

Do You Need to Hold a Stretch to Get the Benefit?

Not necessarily.

Stretching a muscle to the full extent of your ability and holding it for 15 to 30 seconds is what's called a static stretch, and there's no harm in stretching that way as long you don't stretch until it hurts.

But studies suggest a dynamic stretch is just as effective, and sometimes better, especially before your workout.

A dynamic stretch, like the Standing Cat-Camel, moves a muscle group fluidly through an entire range of motion.

Continued

Here's a static version of the Cat-Camel:

  • Lace your fingers together and turn your palms to face outward in front of you.
  • Reach your arms as far as you can, curving your back and shoulders forward.
  • Hold for about 10 seconds.
  • Now release your fingers, and grab your wrists or fingers behind your back.
  • Raise your arms as high as you can behind your back without releasing your hands so your chest opens and your shoulders roll back.

With any stretch, static or dynamic, you should feel a stretch, but you shouldn't feel pain. So there is no need to stretch farther than the range of motion you typically need.

Should You Stretch Before Exercise?

Not necessarily. It's not proven to help prevent injury, curb muscle soreness after exercise, or improve your performance.

Static stretching before exercise can weaken performance, such as sprint speed, in studies. The most likely reason is that holding the stretch tires out your muscles.

You should warm up by doing dynamic stretches, which are like your workout but at a lower intensity. A good warm-up before a run could be a brisk walk, walking lunges, leg swings, high steps, or "butt kicks" (slowly jogging forward while kicking toward your rear end).

Start slowly, and gradually ramp up the intensity.

Should You Stretch After Exercise?

This is a great time to stretch.

"Everyone is more flexible after exercise, because you've increased the circulation to those muscles and joints and you've been moving them," Millar says.

If you do static stretches, you'll get the most benefit from them now.

"After you go for a run or weight-train, you walk around a little to cool down. Then you do some stretching. It's a nice way to end a workout," Bracko says.

Can You Stretch Anytime?

Yes. It is not a must that you stretch before or after your regular workout. It is simply important that you stretch sometime.

This can be when you wake up, before bed, or during breaks at work.

"Stretching or flexibility should be a part of a regular program," Millar says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD on February 25, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

Lynn Millar, PT, PhD, FACSM, department chairwoman and professor of physical therapy, Winston-Salem State University, Winston-Salem, NC.

Mike Bracko, EdD, CSCS, FACSM, sports physiologist and director of the Institute for Hockey Research, Calgary, Alberta.

Garber, C. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, July 2011.

Marangoni, A. Work, 2010.

Ludewig, P. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, November 2003.

Perrier, E. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, July 2011.

Kistler, B. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, September 2010.

Fields, K. Current Sports Medicine Reports, May-June 2010.

Simic, L. Scandivanian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, published online Feb. 8, 2012.

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