To Stretch or Not to Stretch

Should we stretch before or after doing an exercise? Are muscle stretches an integral part of a physical activity session? What type of stretching is most appropriate following a particular activity? Athletes often don’t take the time to stretch before or after a cardiovascular or muscular effort. Is stretching really necessary in a healthy lifestyle?

It has been shown that muscle stretches can increase range of motion thanks to better tissue flexibility (muscles, ligaments, joint capsules...). This can reduce the risk of injury as well as damage to surrounding tissue. However, there are disagreements over whether stretches must be done before or after an exercise. Here is a summary of the latest trends.

On the one hand, studies show that pre-exercise static stretches (i.e. maintained for more than 30 seconds) decrease muscle performance and increase the risk of injury, especially in high intensity exercises. This mechanism could be explained by a loss in contraction effectiveness of the muscular tissue in reaction to stretching. On the other hand, functional stretches, which are not statically maintained and respect the range of motion used during the activity, could be beneficial. These stretches are performed actively in a range of motion that mimics the sporting movement of the activity to come. For example: do shoulder rotations before swimming. These stretches would increase the muscular temperature and cause the physiological awakening of the stimulated body part. This would increase muscle performance, but also reduce the incidence of injury.

However, static stretches performed immediately after exercise don’t seem to help reduce muscle aches and don’t accelerate post-exercise recovery. Indeed, according to current evidence, the feeling of well-being that a post-workout stretching session provides is temporary and the effects dissipate very quickly. In order to increase muscular flexibility in a person who lacks flexibility, stretches remain effective if they are performed regularly, either immediately after a workout or at some other time.

In a nutshell, stretches are recommended for people who lack flexibility to reduce the risk of injury. They should be done regularly and, ideally, at a time away from the workouts. Static pre-workout stretches should be avoided as they increase the risk of injury and decrease a muscle’s performance. Post-workout stretches don’t have the power to decrease aches nor do they help with recovery, but they are pleasant for many people and are not contraindicated.


Rémi Bergeron
physiotherapist
ASP Montreal - Downtown