There are cases for each camp and I am going to outline the best arguments for both. However, the “Coles Notes” on the topic is pretty straightforward. Optimally, your best bet is to stretch before and after exercise, or any physical activity for that matter. However, for the sake of argument I would say that before is more important. The big difference is the type or style of stretching that you do. There are great cases for both and if you are interested in why, have a read.
Why should I stretch before? The biggest reason to stretch before an activity or exercise is to physically warm up and prepare the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and even bones for what your about to do. Going into a physical task with cold muscles is a recipe for an injury. I think that is pretty well known and fairly easy to understand. The other reason maybe not so much…and that is; while we often have one main muscle to do an action, it is nearly always assisted in that action by other muscles. To keep things in balance in the body we also nearly always have a muscle that is assisting, resisting, or opposing any action. Virtually every muscle in our body has an antagonist or opposite. That means that when one muscle is contracting (or shortening) its antagonist or opposite is stretching (or lengthening).
Ok, cool so what’s that mean? Let us look at a specific example to understand the next part of the equation.
If you look at your upper arm when you lift your hand towards your shoulder (or bicep curl for the gym buffs out there) you can physically see your bicep muscle shorten. What you probably can’t see is that your tricep muscle (back of your arm) is lengthening to allow such a movement to take place. Now, unless you have an injury or disability this is usually a pretty simple movement to perform, typically without too much restriction. For the sake of this example, imagine that your tricep (back of your arm) was so incredibly tight that you couldn’t bring your hand even half the way up to the point you can now. The opposite muscle is inhibiting your bicep from doing its job. This problem can be from a muscle being overworked and chronically tight, out of strength balance with its opposer, or maybe from an injury, among other potential reasons.
Why is this important?
Well, its important because now you can’t exercise or use that muscle in order to be strong in its intended full range of motion (R.O.M). That means that if that muscle is ever taken to its full range of motion and needs to be supportive or strong (in that range) to help you lift something, catch you from falling on your face, or anything else that muscle needs to do, it will not have the full capacity to do so. If you apply this theory to every muscle and joint in your body, hopefully you can start to understand why releasing overworked, trigger point filled, chronically tight muscles, is so important. If not, let me explain a little further. The ability to contract, use, or move muscles without restriction, is based on having good joint mobility and muscle, ligament, and tendon, flexibility. Therefore, if you are about to embark in meaningful movement like a workout or physical activity, you want to make sure that you are mobile enough to move. That is, without restriction, and certainly without pain or discomfort. So if one muscle effects how another muscle can perform (or not perform) this is the case for stretching or executing mobility before your activity.
That my friends, is where this all gets tied together. When we have years of built up weakness, stress, injuries, surgeries, compensations, or lifestyle attributes that force our bodies to adapt, we get pain and discomfort. Often times your pain and discomfort comes from an overburdened muscle that simply reaches a point where it is too tired to keep it up. Sometimes this is from the weakness of another muscle that is not doing its job. Being sedentary and not using our muscles is the number one culprit for this issue. Muscle A is weak and not used a lot (like your butt muscles from sitting all day) and muscle B (like your lower back muscles) needs to work overtime in order for you to function like a human being and have some form of posture so you don’t look like a blob melted on the floor. Muscle B (lower back) needs a break, or a release. If it doesn’t get this break or release it talks to you. It says hey I’m tired, and gives you that achey feeling. Pain, discomfort, ache, sore, whatever you want to call it. Either way it sucks, but its very preventable.
For example, if your butt muscles are strong from let’s say, working out and training them, we have a vastly different story. They are doing their job and then your back doesn’t have to work overtime and every muscle in this example is happy, no pain, no strain.
If not, we end up having a chain reaction because our entire body is connected with fascia (a thin sheath of fibrous tissue enclosing our muscles and organs). Picture a spider web that covers your entire body and when one part of it becomes tight it pulls the rest with it. It moves as one, completely connected. This is one of the reasons why when you go get treatment for these sore, painful issues, you will get attention above and below the site of pain. Acupuncture can relieve muscle discomfort in your lower back by releasing your neck. Whoa. One area pulls on another and another, and so on. Powerful stuff.
So let’s bring this back to the original point. Stretch before you workout so that your body isn’t working against itself, and rather, working optimally with itself. Make sure your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are physically warm so that they are not like frozen elastic bands ready to snap when they get used. It is a best practise to address trigger points (muscle knots), over worked and over tight muscles (that are pulling and stressing out the rest of your body), all while helping your joints achieve a full R.O.M.
Now, there are many ways to go about this. I use the universal term “stretch” because people can identify and probably picture themselves back in gym class doing those classic stretches before playing dodgeball. With my clients I actually use the term mobility to refer to the warm up and release work associated with a pre-workout routine.
When you warm up or stretch before an exercise program you should be performing myo-fascial release techniques, dynamic stretches, and joint traction techniques for optimal human movement. All of these methods will help you drastically improve your flexibility, joint range of motion, and decrease/eliminate most pain and discomfort associated with structural imbalance (one muscle is stronger or tighter than its counterpart). It will also allow you to move freely and perform movements at a more optimal level. Your body will be in a much more balanced state and you will feel better, period. Aches and pains tend to melt away with the proper mobility program. I call it the short term discomfort solution that you can do yourself – for the rest of your life. Talk about a health investment!
To know more about these techniques and methods check out the flexibility tab on the home page. To know what your specific needs are you can book a complimentary movement assessment and you will be thoroughly educated. Pains and discomforts can often be explained based on your posture, and ability (or inability) to move in basic functional ways. The solutions follow through an individualized mobility program and foundational corrective exercise program.
How about the case for stretching after exercise?
The most important reason to stretch afterwards is to help with recovery, in my opinion. It can also help reinforce posture, and serve as a cool down. When you are stretching after a workout it’s usually best to perform static stretches rather than dynamic. Dynamic stretches require you to hold positions of stretch for very short periods of time (1-3 seconds), and incorporate continuous movement. That version helps get your heart rate up, physically warms you up, and prepares you for movement. Static stretching on the other hand is the opposite. Long holds (10-30 seconds) in a stretched position with some deep breathing to help with the parasympathetic response and relaxation. This is exactly what you are looking for after a tough bout of physical activity. Both forms of stretching encourage blood flow to the area, and with static stretching it helps with the recovery process. So there you have it. I am clearly biased towards doing mobility (“stretching”) before your activity but I also think its a good idea to do some afterwards as well. I hope this helps and if you have any questions please feel free to reach out to me!