Straight Dope on Stretching
April 11, 2005 8:57 AM   Subscribe

What's the best way to stretch before and after working out?

I've looked over numerous magazine articles and books on stretching and it seems everything conflicts. Are there any resources you found especially helpful?
posted by drezdn to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
What sort of exercise? The stretches you do are going to depend on the muscles you are using.
posted by dame at 8:59 AM on April 11, 2005

What kinds of conflict have you seen? I've never noticed that problem.

Stretching, by Bob Anderson is a great book.

tag: Bruce Lee???
posted by grouse at 9:02 AM on April 11, 2005

Also: I've always been told to do (and have done) at the very least one minute of stretching for every ten that you exercise.
posted by xmutex at 9:04 AM on April 11, 2005

Response by poster: I'm looking for general stretching, as I bike, swim, run, weight lift (general working out really).

With the Anderson book, apparently it recommends "static" stretching which according to some sources can tighten/hurt your muscles.
posted by drezdn at 9:05 AM on April 11, 2005

What sources?
posted by grouse at 9:07 AM on April 11, 2005

Response by poster: Static Stretching. All the conflicting information I've read makes me nervous about what stretches to do, how often to do them, etc. For example, for running, apparently there are studies that have shown you are more likely to injure yourself if you stretch before hand.
posted by drezdn at 9:13 AM on April 11, 2005

I am extraordinarily inflexible and have had good results with proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching.

I think the one almost all sources agree is bad for you is ballistic stretching, which is where you incorporate bouncing movements into the stretch.

There is a lot of conflicting opinion on the timing of stretches and how this affects the benefits- before any exercise, vs. after 5-10 minute warmup (but before vigorous exercise) vs. after exercise.

One citation: New research makes it clear that - in terms of improving your flexibility - it's probably best to stretch during or after your workout, not before.
posted by BleachBypass at 9:41 AM on April 11, 2005

I'm not convinced that it's good to stretch -- I'm a marathon level runner and I've not had an injury since I stopped stretching. At first, that sounds crazy, but the studies apparently show that stretching only increases chance of injury. Depending on what you're doing athletically, flexibility might be your enemy, as more flexibility leads to easier over-extension.

The running mags are all (mostly) advising against stretching... they focus much more now on various warmup-type isometric exercises to get you moving.
posted by ph00dz at 10:06 AM on April 11, 2005

This is the routine I followed, and was trained to instruct on my leadership course in the Canadian Forces. I use it for everything from jogging to weight training to downhill skiing to snowshoeing, and when I use it I rarely feel stiff the next day.

High level summary

Before: Aprox 5 minutes of stretching, working from the top of the body (neck) down (ankles).

After: Aprox 5 minutes of stretching, usually from the bottom of the body (ankles) and working your way to the top (neck).


a) recent study found that stretching before exercise might not be as beneficial as expected and increases risk of injury, a gradual increase in pace of exercise may be safer.
b) stretches are alternated between left/right arm or leg
c)for each stretch, position is usually held for between 10 and 30 seconds, studies have shown that any longer then 30 seconds gives no additional benefit, although i'm sure Yoga fans would dissagree
d) do not rock when you stretch. Hold the position, or try forcing your muscles against the stretch to increase it's effectiveness.

Detailed Summary

The warmup/warmdown stretch routine allowed for variation but usually consisted of:
  • 2-3 neck rotations or holds in each direction,
  • 2-3 arm stretchs over head (elbow bent or arm pulled by other arm at the wrist)
  • Stick arms out, start rotation in ever increasing circles until they are rotating like the wheels on a paddle boat, reverse direction and decrease diameter of circles until you're making tiny circles with arms stretched out again.
  • 2-3 torso rotations, e.g. hands on hips and bend forward and lean to the right, back left and forward again. Alternate between directions, works great on back.
  • 2-3 forward leg extensions. Stick one leg forward with knee bent, stick other leg back with leg straight and inside of foot flat on ground, lean forward. Should feel stretch of inner thigh of the leg that is back, and if you have weak knees, stretch on forward knee.
  • 2-3 side leg extensions. Similar to above except one leg is stretched out to the side while other is bent as you lean over it. Good for inner thighs and ankles.
  • 2-3 standing up straight, bend one leg at the knee, reach behind with opposite hand and grasp ankle, pull up with hand (so leg goes back) and at same time push push down with leg. Can be a bit tricky if you don't have something/someone to support you but comes with practice. A must if you will be doing jogging.
  • 2-3 stand straight and raise toes as high as possible while standing on heels. Good for stretching muscles in shins.
  • 2-3 stand straight and raise heels while standing on toes. Good for calfs.
  • 2-3 Ankle rotations. Put big toe of one foot on ground, rotate elevated heel around it like you're butting out a cigarette.
  • Start running! Pushups and sit ups are a great way of breaking up the run or for bookending the warmup/warmdown.
I hope it's useful to you too.
posted by furtive at 10:10 AM on April 11, 2005

1) never ever bounce during a stretch.
2) do not stretch cold muscles. Taking a cold muscle through a larger than normal range of motion, under force (ie. stretch) is hazardous. Minimum, warm up for 10 minutes utilizing light aerobic exercise. Then, strech if you like.
3) It's probably best to stretch at the end of yoru workout, wehn your body is at the warmest....good blood in your joints. Still, don't bounce. Ever.

PNF aer great...but they can lead to flexibility that is greater than your body needs.

Stretching often makes us feel psychologically good, but realistically it makes no difference in soreness. If you want to test this..workout hard, stretch your right side and not your left. And if you're lifting weights properly, you're going through a healty range of motion.
posted by filmgeek at 10:14 AM on April 11, 2005

One good plan is to do a gentle warm-up for about 5 minutes, such as jogging, or low level on whatever cardio machine you choose. Then stretch for a few minutes, then do your intense exercise. It is supposedly better and safer to stretch when you (and your muscles) are somewhat warmed-up.
posted by cushie at 10:14 AM on April 11, 2005

For swimming, I generally do what my coach tells me, which includes stretching after a 100–200 yd. warmup. To prevent injury in swimming, it's best to make sure your rotater cuff is in good shape. This article has some exercises (including stretches) that are good for keeping uninjured swimmers uninjured.
posted by dame at 11:01 AM on April 11, 2005

Second the Bob Anderson book, and stretching after activity. I marathoned three times in the early nineties, and at that time Runner's World et al were very high on stretching. It is interesting to read that it has somehow gone out of fashion, or at least they have stopped recommending it. Anyway, cyclists still stretch, at least this one does.
posted by fixedgear at 4:28 PM on April 11, 2005

I highly recommend the Wharton's Stretch Book, which features Active Isolated Stretching. It takes a while to do and it's sort of tedious, but it really works. I went to a physical therapist licensed to teach it and he noticeably improved my posture in one session. On my own, I have good results when I do it.

Runners World (since everybody's talking about it) has an article about AIS. Here is the site of the guy who invented it. He has books, too, which are probably better technically but IMO more confusing than the Wharton one.
posted by callmejay at 8:41 PM on April 11, 2005

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