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Workout Wednesday: Why the Right Stretches are Important

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Stretch

For years, we’ve always been told that it’s important to stretch before working out. After all, it’s always good to give your muscles a bit of a chance to warm up before diving into a run, weight routine, or whatever it is you’ve got planned. We’ve heard that stretching is thought to help enhance performance while also reducing your chance for serious injury, and for many of us, it’s been nothing but truth.

But as with a number of other topics, the idea of stretching before a workout has been called into question. Of course, stretching after a workout is also being questioned. As a result, we’re left to wonder when we’re supposed to do it, or if we’re supposed to do it at all.

It shouldn’t be a secret that certain stretching techniques can do great things for your performance. However, there are certain stretches that may not do anything to help improve it. This is where knowing the difference between dynamic and static stretching can come in handy.

Dynamic Stretching vs. Static Stretching

While the fight over whether stretching is better before or after exercise seems to wage on, sometimes flaring in one direction or the other, there have been a core group of exercise physiologists who have stated that both can be good for your performance as well as your overall health.

Dynamic Stretching

Also referred to as dynamic flexibility, dynamic stretching is the routine you do before running, working out, or competing. Essentially, it’s a warm up. These stretches are fairly self-explanatory—they help you increase your flexibility. Dynamic stretches involve constant movement, which promotes muscle flexibility.

The regular movement that this type of stretching requires helps increase blood flow to the muscles being exercised. Increased blood flow makes your muscles feel much more loose than a non-moving (or static) stretch would. Dynamic stretches are also  more comfortable than static stretches because you’re not keeping your muscles in a stretched position for longer periods of time.

The idea behind dynamic stretching is to get your muscles and joints moving in the same way they’ll be moving when you’re working out, running, or competing. These stretches “allow for increased flexibility in more than one muscle group … and are also effective in promoting strength and stability, two additional key components to proper muscle function” (Source).

Static Stretching

This form is usually done after a workout, run, or competition, and involves stretching a certain muscle for 20 to 30 seconds. Static stretching is typically used by physical therapists to help patients improve flexibility and range of motion.

Athletes rarely use it, as static stretches work a specific fixed muscle group, as opposed to focusing on movement. The typical static routine may help lengthen muscles, but “may also decrease neural stimulation to the muscles and enhance relaxation” (Source), which can be a negative for athletes, especially.

There has been a lot of discussion over the years about whether static stretching is good for athletes to do before a workout or competition. According to the New York Times, “studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent” (Source).

Examples of Good Dynamic Stretches

Some of you may be new to the idea of dynamic stretching. Other might not know where to begin, and still others may be having a hard time letting go of the idea of static stretching. That’s normal, trust me.

One of the best pieces of advice is to think about what you’re about to do. If you have your workout planned, or will be competing, take a moment and think about the movements your body will be making. Take a few of those movements, and turn them into your dynamic stretches.

If you’re still in need of ideas, the list below includes some of my favorite ways to stretch pre-workout:

  • Medicine ball swings
  • Jumping jacks
  • Straight-leg marches
  • A simple yoga series that includes poses like sun salutation
  • Handwalks

Remember that dynamic stretching is most useful when you make it sport-specific as often as possible. According to Terence Mahon, a coach for Team Running USA, “you need range-of-motion exercises that activate all of the joints and connective tissues that will be needed for the task ahead” (Source).

Things to Remember

While stretching may already be an integral part of your fitness routine, it’s always important to remember these pointers:

  1. Always take the time to stretch carefully. Rushing through your stretching routine can cause stretch reflexes, which is your body’s way of avoiding muscle tears.
  2. Never stretch too far. When you stretch a muscle or group of muscles too far, your body may also respond with stretch reflexes, which can be harmful. They may make your muscles much less responsive to changing length, and can also increase their sensitivity to touch and pressure in general.
  3. Use dynamic stretches as often as possible before a workout. Static stretching before competition or fitness routines may do more harm than good. Malachy McHugh, Director of Research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York states that “there is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching … The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching” (Source).
  4. Loosen your muscles and warm up your body. When you warm your muscles, they pull oxygen from your bloodstream in a more effective way. This results in your body using stored muscle fuel in a much better way, which can enhance your overall performance.

In the end, stretching before and after exercise or competition is great for your muscles, as well as your overall health. However, how you stretch and what kind of stretches you do are crucial points to always keep in mind.

Static stretching before a workout may seem like a good idea, but in most cases, dynamic stretches will give you that extra edge. They help boost your flexibility, enhance your range of motion, and even increase your power, too.

What type of stretches are you doing before and after your workouts? Have dynamic routines been of benefit to you? Share your stories with us in the comments section below!

 

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