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Stretching: Why & When

Copyright Tanja Gardner

A martial artist friend came to me a few weeks ago, a little confused about stretching. He’d heard a lot of conflicting information about why, when and how to stretch for maximum benefit, and he wanted to some clear guidance. I’ve since had two other subscribers ask me exactly the same question – which suggests that it’s an excellent topic for a feature article.

Why Strech

If you try to stretch a rubber band to its limits when it’s cold, one of two things will happen. Either it won’t stretch very far – or it will simply snap. If, however, you roll it around in your hands and give it a few less intense ‘practice stretches’, stretching it to its full extent becomes easy, and the likelihood of snapping it is minimal.

Your muscles work very similarly. Doing any kind of exercise involving a range of movement your body isn’t used to is just like stretching the rubber band. If you try to do it ‘cold’, you’ll either get a very small range of movement – or you move too far and ‘snap’ (or tear) the muscle tissue. Warm up first however – do a few practice stretches – and your full range of motion is easy to achieve safely.

It’s not only during your workout that this flexibility is important. Your body works on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis which means that, unless you stretch regularly, your joints grow less flexible over time.

Less flexibility means less range of movement in your daily life – so if you have to reach or twist to pick something up, you’re more likely to injure yourself. And if you take part in a sport or training programme that involves regularly contracting your muscles (without including some kind of stretching), you’ll find your general flexibility decreases even faster.

There’s a third reason that many of us have been taught to stretch – and that’s to avoid sore muscles the next day. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of evidence that it will actually help. DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is the aching you feel when you’ve pushed your muscles hard the day before. It happens because the exercise has stressed your muscles to the point they’ve developed microscopic tears in the fibres. And although stretching may feel good after a long workout, there isn’t a lot it can do to heal this ‘microtrauma’, so it won’t have much effect on your level of soreness the next day.

When Should You Stretch?

Many of us were taught to stretch before we do any kind of exercise. In fact, the best time to stretch depends on the kind of exercise we’ll be doing. For simplicity’s sake, we’re going to separate exercise into three categories: strength training that involves slow, controlled movements; training that involves quick, uncontrolled movements, and anything else.

For strength training, there’s evidence that stretching before a workout is counter-productive. Strength training requires muscles to contract tightly against a heavy weight, and loosening the muscle fibres by stretching them first reduces their ability to do this. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t warm your muscles up before strength training – just avoid stretching them first. If you want to include stretching in the same workout as strength training, it’s better to wait until after you’ve finished your weights work.

For anything involving uncontrolled dynamic movements, however (and this would include most sports, dance methods and martial arts), stretching beforehand is important to avoid injury. Just think back to the rubber band metaphor.

For anything that doesn’t fit into either of these categories, you can probably include your stretching whenever you want to. For example, if your exercise is walking (and you do a lot of walking, so it’s within your usual range of motion), you could stretch before, after, during or any combination of the three.

The important thing about stretching is that it should never be done on cold muscles. If you’re stretching at the end of a workout, this isn’t usually a problem, as your muscles will be well and truly warmed up. If you’re stretching before your workout, however, experts recommend warming up (doing some kind of light exercise that gets your heart beating faster, and blood flowing to your muscles) for at least 5-10 minutes before you begin to stretch.

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll look at different types of stretching – and the right and wrong ways to go about stretching safely and effectively. Until then, if you have any specific questions about how the information in this article applies to you, and would like to go through it with a personal trainer, please contact me.

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