Conventional wisdom holds that before we start physical activity we should stretch. When I played football in high school we would begin every practice and game with a set of team stretches and then proceed to warm up with position specific drills. While serving in the Army we would begin our workouts with stretching, similar to what I experienced in high school. So it is no surprise that I thought that this was the proper way to conduct physical fitness training.
The truth is that this is not the proper way to conduct training.
Warming up the muscles by increasing the core temperature is the most important thing that we can do to increase our performance while decreasing the risk of injury. Warm muscles will contract more forcefully and relax more quickly, exactly what we want from optimally performing muscles. Also, warmer blood will deliver more oxygen to the muscles that we are using. Stretching is among the least effective methods to accomplish warmer muscles. Stretching, statically in particular, may actually increase the likelihood of muscle tears if conducted while the muscles are cold.
The paradigm that may yield the best results for our training may not be the use of any one method, but the proper application of methods at the appropriate times. The paradigm that I use and is based on experience and research is to warm up and dynamically stretch before the workout and follow the workout with static stretching.
The warm-up should last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. A light sweat is an indicator of an appropriate amount of time for warming-up. Try to pick exercises, like jogging for example, that increase the heart rate while not loading the muscles too much or requiring a great range of motion.
Once you are warmed up you may want to conduct dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is stretching that emphasizes the muscles and motions that you will be using during your physical training. Air squats, arm rotations, walk and lunge, high knees, and toe jumps are good examples of dynamic stretches. Although there is no definite amount required when doing these, I usually recommend about three sets 15 to 25 repetitions of each.
After you are done conducting your training, it is important to conduct static stretching. Static stretching is the “traditional” stretching that we should all be familiar with. Go through a full range of stretches. I like to start with the legs, move to the core, and the finish with upper body stretches. Exhale, relax, and slowly move into the stretch. Don’t bounce. The stretch should be held for 30 seconds. If 30 seconds is too long for now, work up to 30 seconds. Holding stretches for longer than 30 seconds will not yield any greater results.
Our cool down is where we have the greatest influence over our overall flexibility. This should be done consistently and only when we are adequately warmed up. Static stretching before we are warm may increase the chances of injury and has not been shown to increase performance.
If done correctly and consistently, our pre-workout and post-workout routines should improve performance, increase flexibility, and decrease the likelihood of injuries. Good luck on your training and contact me at NorthAtlanticPT@gmail.com if you have any questions.
Josh Cormier is a Certified Personal Trainer and owner of North Atlantic Personal Training. Visit www.NorthAtlanticPT.com for more information or if you have any questions.