What have you heard about stretching? Should you do it before or after exercising? Does it reduce the risk of injury? Should I do it even if I don’t exercise? What are the benefits?
Stretching has long been thought of as a great method to warm-up and to reduce the risk of sustaining an injury during exercise or activity, whether it be sport or personal health related. These ideas are old and hold minimal merit according to the more recent research.
We should understand that there are 2 main types of stretching: static and dynamic. Static stretching is performed by bringing a muscle to near-maximal length and holding it for a period of time in attempt to improve its extensibility and your overall flexibility. On the other hand, dynamic stretching is performed by rhythmically bringing a muscle to near maximal length and shortening it again during a movement. Examples of this would include repetitions of lunges and squats. This type of stretching differs from static in 2 fundamental ways - there is no holding of any position or pose and you are required to activate muscles in order to return to your starting position.
It should be noted that static stretching has been found to temporarily reduce muscle activation potential and therefore may actually increase your risk for injury as those muscles would be less able to to protect or maintain the integrity of the joints they work upon. Furthermore, short-term static stretching may result in temporarily tightening a muscle more than it originally was thus negating its primary purpose - improving your range of motion for warm-up.
Dynamic stretching, however, has not only been found to improve range of motion, it also functions to prime and warm up your muscles for action. Simply put, your body is much more forgiving when it comes to improving muscle pliability if movement and muscle activation are incorporated into the warm-up routine. Combining the benefits of improved flexibility and primed muscles makes Dynamic stretching is a great way to prepare for exercise.
But hold up! There is still a place for static stretching. Long-term static stretching will impart changes to your muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules. Assuming you are well hydrated, longer periods of stretching that are performed more frequently (daily or multiple times a day) will result in longer-lasting improvements in flexibility. Many rehabilitation programs will incorporate static stretching as a means to maintain an ideal muscle length after an injury or surgery. Static stretching may also be used after exercise as a means to encourage blood flow and prevent any potential cramping that may occur. Otherwise, static stretching is largely employed in order to achieve any long term goal of improving range of motion, a very important part of functional movement!
-Dr Dan Prinsen, 2018