The short answer to this is “Yes, you really do need to stretch.” But there is actually a lot more to consider before finding a definitive answer to this question?
For example, did you know that there are different types of stretching, and doing the wrong kind before exercise can actually be harmful?
Read on to learn more.
Why should I stretch?
No matter what you may read on other sites, warming up your muscles prior to exercise is necessary. As mentioned, the type of stretching can make a difference, but the basics remain the same.
Moving your muscles increases the blood flow. If you start to exercise without “warming up” you are basically starting from scratch. Any strain that is put on the muscles at that point can do damage. Getting the blood flowing is a way of waking up your muscles and telling them to get ready.
Range of motion/flexibility
When muscles are not used or used only lightly in general movement, they tend to contract. If you start an exercise without stretching, they have no idea that their range of motion needs to be bigger to accommodate the chosen exercise.
Stretching elongates the muscles and serves as another wake-up call that they will be doing more activity than usual.
If you increase the blood flow and your flexibility with stretching prior to exercise, there is a good chance that you will see your overall performance improve. For one thing, well-stretched muscles allow you to perform more fulfilled actions, which can, in turn, give your confidence a boost to keep going.
Conversely, if you don’t stretch and you pull a muscle, that could discourage you from exercise. Or, worse, you could seriously strain or tear a muscle leading to a long and possibly painful recuperation period.
Those are some of the basics as to why you need to stretch before exercising. Now, let’s focus on the proper kind of stretching.
How should I stretch?
While there are many types of stretching, there are two common types that I want to focus on in terms of pre-exercise.
This type of stretching is where you “strike a pose” and hold it for up to 30 seconds. Think of a hamstring stretch, or when you stretch your arm by holding it across your body. Generally, you should feel the muscle start to lengthen.
Let me give you an example of touching your toes. You bend over and your hands don’t quite touch the floor. But, as you stay in that position, the back muscles gradually start to release, and you notice your fingertips get closer to the floor.
Static stretching is good for giving the muscles a chance to realize that they are about to be used. But, depending on the type of exercise, static stretching may not be enough to properly prepare your muscles.
If you watch professional athletes warm-up, you may notice that they will do repeated motion stretches, like leg swings or windmills with their arms. This is dynamic stretching. By giving a range of motion and moving the muscles in a variety of directions, you are loosening every bit of the muscle, not just a targeted area.
This is especially important if you plan on exercising in a way that requires a change of direction or quick changes in movement. In other words, dynamic stretching gets your muscles ready for multiple types of movement.
I can’t stress this enough. To properly stretch before exercise, a combination of dynamic and static stretching should be used. For example, start with an easy hamstring stretch and then do
leg swings. Or stretch your arm across your body and then windmill to release your shoulder muscles.
Relying on only one or the other for your stretching can result in injury. Also, be sure that the stretches you do are targeting the correct muscles for the workout you are about to try.
I feel like this often doesn’t get enough attention. Not only is it important to do the proper stretches before exercise, but I think the cool down is also vital. You’ve just extensively used your muscles. They need to be told that they are done working hard and have the opportunity to slowly get back to “normal.”
And by normal, I mean their regular state for general movement. If you stop your exercise routine without cooling down and stretching, the muscles can retract suddenly. Then you get cramps which can be very painful.
Generally, static stretching is used most often in the post-exercise stretch routine.
Put it all together
All stretching should be undertaken with ease – don’t “violently” stretch. That will do you no good. And don’t run through a pre-exercise routine too quickly. Give your muscles the appropriate attention to wake them up and get them ready to exercise.
By finding the proper stretches for your chosen form of exercise, combining static and dynamic stretching, and giving yourself time to stretch after your workout, you are giving your muscles the best chance to remain healthy, which ultimately helps you stay healthy too!
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