If your fitness routine includes a pre-workout stretch, you may be spinning your wheels — or worse, hurting yourself.
Many of us were taught that it's important to stretch before running or exercising. That often included the classic forward bend to touch your toes.
But while stretching can be beneficial in some instances, experts say it's not vital to include before your workout routine.
"Recent expert opinion has moved away from static stretching before a sport or activity and more toward gradual warming," says Michael Daignault, an emergency physician in Los Angeles and chief medical adviser for Reliant Health Services. "Furthermore, stretching a cold tight muscle could lead to injury itself."
Morit Summers, personal trainer and founder of Form Fitness Brooklyn, lauds stretching as an important tool for mobility, but doesn't suggest her clients do static stretching, where a certain stretch position is held, before a workout.
"If you do a static stretch on a cold body, you can hurt yourself. You can tear a muscle," she explains.
If you've been doing static stretches before workouts, it's OK. Stretching is generally a fool-proof activity, Summers explains. You'll likely know if you've gone too far in your stretch by listening to your body.
"We can feel when something is uncomfortable or painful. So if you are doing static stretching, there should be a little of a pull but not much more," she says. "If you start to feel like you're pulling too far then you probably are and you should just stop."
While there's little harm in skipping stretching, it can be dangerous to "launch from a cold static state to a vigorous exercise without a gradual warmup period," explains Daignault.
While static stretching isn't the way to go, Summers echoes that warmups are still "incredibly important" to make sure your body is prepped.
"So prior to workouts, we talk about doing dynamic stretching or dynamic mobility, moving joints around, moving muscles, getting blood flow to the body," she explains. "So it can still feel like a stretch, but you're moving through space as opposed to just holding positions."
Daignault suggests catering your warmup to the type of workout you're planning to do.
"For example, before going for a run, start walking, increase pace to light jog, and then gradually increase your pace to your usual speed," he says. "If you're a weight lifter, you wouldn't go stretch your shoulder muscles or pecs before doing (a) bench press – you would do the bench press but at significantly lower weight than usual."
Summers says static stretching can be incorporated after a workout, but it all depends on the individual's goals and needs. For example, a dancer would need to stretch differently than the average person and so forth.
"(It's) sport by sport, case by case. Some people are tighter in their hips (or) upper body, it really just depends," she says. "So just starting a general stretching routine or mobilizing routine and then kind of figuring out what works best for your body is the best way to go about it."
Anyone can benefit from an established stretching routine not just athletes, says Tony Zaccario, CEO at assisted stretching center Stretch Zone.
"It's also just as beneficial for those that are sedentary or maybe those that aren't active (but) trying to get back into activity," he explains, adding that the pandemic has forced many inside and into a more sedentary lifestyle.
"Many of us are stuck at home behind a computer screen for eight hours and with that comes a lot of hunching over, so there's a lot of tension, whether it's in your chest and causes upper back pain, lower back pain, sciatica from sitting a lot," he adds.
He says his clients report alleviated pain points, which leads to more restful sleep and feeling better during the day.
For those looking to get incorporate stretching into their daily lives, he suggests to "always start small."
Summers agrees that dynamic stretching or mobility work can be a great way to get movement into your day.
"Even if it's five to 10 minutes a day of just movement, completely separate from like a full workout... that would be a great thing," she says.
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