Some habits are hard to break. Especially the ones that seem good for you. Take the habit of static stretching before a workout. For many years it was the norm and recommended behavior by all fitness professionals. And, why not? It appears to be common sense – stretch muscles before working out and it should help one perform better and lessen the risk of injury. But what exercise studies have shown over and over again throughout the last couple of decades is, while it may seem logical, it’s really just a theory that morphed into common practice and now proven to be a myth.
At the track, gym, on fields, along bike and pedestrian paths – I observe many exercisers holding onto the myth. Maybe the word hasn’t gotten out or perhaps it has, but people can’t let go of what seems to be intuitive. I suspect people reason that even if it doesn’t help, it can’t possibly hurt. However, studies bear out that it could actually be detrimental. Muscles before exercise are “cold”, they are stiff and less elastic. This is especially true when one exercises first thing in the morning. Stretching when muscles are cold raises the risk of overstretching which can damage the muscles and tendons. Stretching is most effective, and safest, when muscles are warmed up.
The desire to stretch before exercise comes from the very real sensation we have (especially as we age) that our muscles are tight or stiff, so we feel the need to loosen them up before working out. The instinct is correct, but static stretching is the incorrect response. A five to ten minute warm-up is what’s needed to gently prepare the musculature and cardiovascular systems for exercise. Your body, the environment and planned workout will determine how long you’ll need to warm-up. For example, if you’ve rushed to the gym after being out and about to get in 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, you probably need about 5 minutes of warm-up. If you’re exercising first thing in the morning, feeling especially tight, exercising outdoors on a cold day, or planning to run several miles – a longer warm-up is best. Warm-ups aren’t only for cardio workouts, a one to two minute warm-up, such as high-knee marching, is beneficial before strength training.
While pre-exercise stretching is a no-no, post-exercise stretching is a must. If you’ve had an especially rigorous workout, you should cool-down before stretching. This allows the cardiovascular system time to normalize and prevents dizziness and light-headedness while stretching. Don’t forget to stretch after strength training workouts as well. For more information on the types of stretching, the recommended pre-sports event regimen, and stretching examples, see my previous posts Rubber Bands & Bungee Cords and That’s A Stretch.
Now that you’re armed with the truth, spread the word. And, speaking of that, I could use your opinion on a personal trainer’s dilemma. I occasionally witness strangers exhibiting incorrect fitness behavior and wonder if I should intervene. If it were something that could be potentially dangerous to someone’s health I, of course, would. But, most of the time, it’s a matter of incorrect form or, as in today’s example, stretching prior to exercise. These types of behavior fall into a gray area – they’re not dangerous but could cause minor injury. Would you want a trainer you didn’t know to approach you in those circumstances? Participate in my poll and let me know what you think.