The Rumor: Stretching really doesn't do anything for you
Cats stretch. Dogs stretch. Even mice stretch. But does it really do anything for us humans?
The Verdict: Stretching has benefits if you do it right
A regular habit of stretching improves your joints’ range of motion. That keeps you limber so you can do more things without feeling pain -- now and in future years. If you stretch two or three times a week, your joint range of motion will improve after three or four weeks. Stretching can also help maintain good posture and balance, and may prevent certain kinds of injury.
But the benefits of stretching may have been overstated, it seems. There's no evidence that stretching before working out will make you less sore afterward. "And there's no evidence to support the argument that stretching after exercise reduces your lactic acid levels and prevents soreness, either," says exercise physiologist Michael Bergeron, Ph.D., a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine.
"Stretching gets a bad rap because of valid, but very narrow, research," says Richard T. Cotton, MA, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine. The idea that if you stretch before you play sports you’re less likely to strain a muscle or stretch a tendon? "That just doesn’t hold up," says Cotton.
Not only does stretching not improve performance, it may actually impair it in certain sports. This is especially true for static stretching (the kind where you hold a stretch for 10 to 30 seconds, then repeat it a few times) and certain sports that require explosive performance, like sprinting or power lifting. You may actually be less powerful after a static stretch. "Honestly, [the benefits of stretching] are pretty negligible," says Bergeron. "Unless you’re looking to shave tenths of a second off your performance, stretching won’t have a measurable effect."
However, stretching does reduce the risk of injury overall. "Stretching can decrease your risk of injury not in the specific exercise, but in activities of daily living, like bending over to tie your shoe," says Cotton. In other words, the better your range of motion, the less likely it is that you will injure yourself bending over or reaching for something. Being limber, Cotton notes, "enhances the quality of life."
So go ahead and stretch a few times a week. It doesn’t matter if you do it before or after you exercise, but make sure you’re warmed up. "It’s best not to stretch when the body is cold," says Bergeron. "Warm up first, and then stretch." Agrees Cotton, "A warm-up is essential. Muscles work more efficiently when they’re at a bit higher temperature than the resting state."
Many folks feel benefits from dynamic stretching, which is where you slowly coax your body to make the same motions that you’ll be making when you really get going with your sport or workout. Dynamic stretching is often incorporated into the warm-up phase of group exercise classes, like when baseball players toss balls to each other and move their arms in circles before they start playing.
One great thing about dynamic stretching is that it combines warming up with stretching. "Do a sports movement, then do it a little further each time," suggests Bergeron. "That gets your heart rate up. If you’re warming up before playing tennis, for example, volley for a bit -- not competitively, just hitting the ball back and forth. You’re maintaining the range of motion you’ll be using during the match. Once you’re a little warmed up, do some side lunges to stretch out your groin."
Get flexible. Be limber. Consider dynamic stretching, so that you'll simultaneously warm up and improve your range of motion. At the very least, stretching will help you move through life with a little more grace.