Our coaches, trainers, and gym teachers have long instructed us to touch our toes before we touch the court. Most of us almost intuitively stretch before working out, running, or exercising.
But what does stretching really do? Does it increase flexibility? Enhance performance? Prevent injury? Turns out, too much stretching may be a bad thing. It all depends on how much you move while you’re stretching.
Two Types of Stretching
All stretches involve postures that move your body to its outer limits of motion. Stretches are classified as dynamic or static, depending on whether you are moving – like doing high knees – or standing still – like doing long quad stretches.
We often think of those long, static stretches as the standard – you elongate a muscle group and then maintain that elongation for 30 seconds or so. But stretching dynamically, while you move, is gaining popularity because it engages the muscles in a similar way to the workout itself.
When you do a dynamic stretch, you propel your muscle through its maximum range of motion, and you stay in motion. Dynamic stretching prepares your muscles for the kind of performance they must give during your workout, and it warms you up at the same time.
New evidence suggests that static stretching, in particular, may be a warm-up tradition based on superstition. A University of Nevada-Las Vegas study found that static stretching tends to weaken the muscles involved in a workout, thus decreasing strength and ultimately performance over time.
This appears to be caused by the neuromuscular inhibitory response that takes place in muscles with static stretching – long stretches make a muscle less responsive to brain signals, which effectively weakens the muscle just as it’s about to perform. But don’t roll away the yoga mat just yet. Static stretching has other proven benefits like increasing flexibility, decreasing elevated blood flow, and even restoring calm.
Many experts believe that static stretching should play a key role in a cooldown after the workout is through, but almost everyone agrees on the benefits of dynamic stretching before a workout.
Studies show that dynamic stretching causes no neuromuscular inhibitory response, increases flexibility over time, and it helps to prevent injury. Stretching the muscles in ways that mimic a workout is a great way to reduce the likelihood of ligament and muscle tears.
So next time you hit the gym, trade your static stretches for dynamic stretches so you can have a safer and more effective workout.
Dr. Moshe Lewis is the head of Alternative Health and Pain Management at St Lukes Hospital in San Francisco, CA, and co-host of Late Night Health, a wellness-oriented radio talk show.