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Stretching before or after exercise or not at all? Or both? What’s best? Part 1

Posted by in Lower Back pain and your core | 2 comments

Mark Perren-Jones

I decided to ask many of my clients when they thought was the most important time to stretch if they only had enough time to do stretching either before their exercise/activity or after. Which would be better? Would stretching before decrease their risk of injury? Or after? Read on, you are going to be VERY SURPRISED!

This isn’t too tough to work out is it? You have known for years that doing warm up exercises before sport is vitally important so that you don’t pull your muscles. I play golf regularly and everyone does some stretches beforehand (depending on how much time they have before tee-off). This is what we are supposed to do; it’s the sensible responsible thing to do- or is it.

Researchers now believe that some of the more entrenched elements of many athletes’ warm-up regimens are not only a waste of time but actually bad for you. The age old belief that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds which is supposed to get the muscles ready  for a workout is in fact, dead wrong. It actually weakens them.

There was a study done at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where athletes actually generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. There have been similar studies which have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, most likely because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.

“There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, the director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. But worse than this, the  muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which as you can imagine is not the ideal preparation for your favorite activity sport or workout.

Ok, so if static stretching is actually bad to do, what should you do?

Before starting your workout or activity you need to do two things. You need to loosen the muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and get the body warmed up. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. You need to get the blood flow to these tissues and tendons before your workout

Ok, so if a proper warm-up is what you need to do instead, what should you do?

A proper warm-up must begin by increasing your body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. Not only that but they also have the capability to withstand greater loads. This was also confirmed by a study that was done using laboratory rats (god rest their souls), and they discovered that the leg muscles of the rats were able to stretch much further after being electronically stimulated (warmed up) before the muscles were strained. (Actually before they were ripped off the bone but I thought writing strained seemed a lot less graphic for the reader)

So the first thing you need to do for a proper warm-up is to do some aerobic activity, usually light jogging. Most coaches and athletes have known this for years. That’s why tennis players run around the court four or five times before a match and marathoners stride in front of the starting line. One of the major problems with athletes or sportsmen is that they do this too vigorously instead of starting out slowly. A 2002 study of collegiate volleyball players found that those who’d warmed up and then sat on the bench for 30 minutes had lower backs that were stiffer than they had been before the warm-up. Also many studies have demonstrated that an aerobic warm-up that is too vigorous does nothing more than tire you out.

Ok, then how long should the warm up be?

The aerobic warm-up should take only 5 to 10 minutes, with a 5-minute recovery.

Ok, and now that you are nice and warm its superhero time! No, you are not yet ready to become superman and leap tall buildings with a single bound-but you are about to become Spiderman. Read on…

Now it’s time for the most important and perhaps unorthodox part of a proper warm-up regimen. Its time to do exercises like ‘the Spiderman’ (and a few others).

“TOWARDS THE end of my playing career, in about 2000, I started seeing some of the other guys out on the court doing these strange things before a match and thinking, What in the world is that?” says Mark Merklein, 36, once a highly ranked tennis player and now a national coach for the United States Tennis Association. The players were lunging, kicking and occasionally skittering, spider-like, along the sidelines. They were early adopters of a new approach to stretching.

The next time you go and do a workout, or watch a game, or see your child play sports, or watch amateur athletes playing sports you are going to be able to secretly smile from within. You will watch all of these well intentioned people stretching, stretching and doing more stretching but you will know that Static stretching before exercise does nothing whatsoever to improve your muscles ability to perform with more power. And it’s not just me saying this, it’s agreed upon by exercise physiologists throughout the world.

“You may feel as if you’re able to stretch farther after holding a stretch for 30 seconds,” McHugh says, “so you think you’ve increased that muscle’s readiness. But typically you’ve increased only your mental tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. The muscle is actually weaker.”

Okay, so if static stretching is no good for me what do I do then?

The answer is all in my next article. Stay tuned.

2 Comments

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  1. Bethel Haxby

    This is a superb post, but I was wondering how do I suscribe to the RSS feed?

  2. mark

    Yes i am sorry to those of you who have google chrome. there is a problem with the RSS link. I am not sure why but i am on the case.