Wondering when it’s best to stretch? Our Bowie physical therapists weigh in on how to get the most benefit without wasting your time
July 1, 2019
For many of us, the idea that you need to stretch to avoid injury from exercise is one that has been drilled into memory since we first started participating in gym class or organized sports. There is definitely some truth to this concept, as stretching does provide several benefits, but this does not mean that all stretching is good at all times. The truth is that the type of stretching that you do and when you do it is extremely important, as it can be the difference between helping and hurting your performance and risk for injury. To help guide you in making the best decisions when it comes to stretching, our Bowie physical therapists distinguish between the two main different types of stretching and when it’s best to perform each one.
Static vs. dynamic stretching
Stretching can be classified into two main categories: static and dynamic. Static stretching is essentially holding a body part in a single stretched position for about 15-30 seconds without any movement. This is what usually what comes to mind when most people think of stretching and includes some of the most common stretches, like the hamstring stretch, toe touches, and triceps stretch.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, involves an active range of motion movement that resemble sport or movement-specific actions. This type of stretching also lengthens the fascia—the connective tissue around muscles—increases the core body temperature, and prepares the body for the demands of the activity that is about to come. Examples include soccer players doing leg and hip swings and boxers working on their footwork and punches before a fight.
Some research has suggested that performing dynamic stretches before a practice or game can improve athletic performance and possibly even prevent the risk for injuries, but the evidence is not strong and other studies have refuted these potential benefits. There is a much greater consensus, however, that static stretching should only be completed after exercise and not beforehand. Studies have shown that static stretching before working out may actually decrease athletic performance, likely because holding a stretch tires out muscles, while doing so afterwards might reduce the risk for injury while increasing power and speed.
Stretching tips from our Bowie physical therapists
So what does this mean for your warm-ups and cool-downs after exercising? Our Bowie physical therapists bring it all together with the following tips:
- Before exercise, stretching is optional and a matter of personal preference that depends on what you’re trying to accomplish, but it is not likely to reduce your risk for injury; if you do decide to stretch at this time, avoid static stretches and instead complete a warm-up for at least 10 minutes that involves light aerobic activity and some dynamic stretching that mimics the movements involved in the sport you’re about to perform
- After exercise, stretching may be beneficial and is recommended because the muscles are warmer and more flexible; static stretching of the primary muscle groups used in your activity is best at this time
- Warning: stretching too quickly and too far can cause your muscle fibers to contract and shorten reflexively, which can cause the muscle to be less responsive to length change and more sensitive to pressure and touch; therefore, avoid holding stretches too far or doing so quickly
- Static stretch examples
- Dynamic stretch examples
For additional guidance on when and how to stretch, our Bowie physical therapists are here to help. Contact CAM Physical Therapy and Wellness Services at 301-464-7390 to schedule an appointment at any of our four clinics in Glenn Dale/Bowie, Hyattsville, Laurel, or our newest location in Silver Spring, MD, or click here for more information on stretching before and after exercising.