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The Do's And Don'ts Of Stretching And Exercise

Let's not stretch the truth.

07/11/2016 3:38 PM AEDT | Updated 07/11/2016 7:37 PM AEDT
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Am I doing this right?

There is no greater feeling (nor virtuous inner glow) than a satisfying stretch -- particularly one that comes after an equally satisfying workout. The next day, however, can be a different story -- and stiff, sore muscles are enough to make sure we hold that hamstring stretch for a few seconds longer.

For years, we have been conditioned to believe that stretching and exercise go hand-in-hand -- that an intensive stretch before a high-intensity workout is key to reaping its benefits.

Scientific studies are telling us otherwise.

An aggressive stretching session before a workout will actually lead to your muscles being unable to contract properly.

"Research has shown that there is a direct link between taking stretching too far and posing damages to your body," Christine Fletcher, physiotherapist from Function Physio, told The Huffington Post Australia.

"An aggressive stretching session before a workout will actually lead to your muscles being unable to contract properly. Your workout will be less effective as a result and you may be incapable of performing movements that can, in turn, lead to injury."

Which leads us to some other misconceptions surrounding stretching and exercise. But first ...

Why do we do it?

Stretching has many long-term benefits, the most established of which come down to improving flexibility and range of motion.

By garnering a wider range of motion in your movements, your physical performance will improve and help to reduce your risk of injury.

According to Fletcher, developing an effective stretching routine should vary from person to person.

"Everyone's routine -- and what they get out of it -- will be different," she said.

"If you have a diagnosed injury, you will have been told how you need to stretch. It's also really important for people who practise dance or gymnastics to stretch in a regular fashion, regardless of where or when."

"For those who want to exercise more, stretching also helps with muscle development. If you want to work on your squats and don't have the flexibility to move lower, stretching will help to achieve more of that muscle activation to push back and move deeper into the exercise."

For the average, injury-free person however, it can be easy to become swept up in the perceived, short-term benefits of stretching -- which can actually have an adverse effect.

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Yoga is a different story -- it's all about the stretch.

1. Stretching before you exercise isn't a thing.

Too often we are told that a few heavy lunges before our high-intensity morning pump class will ensure we minimise the risk of acute injury and delayed onset muscle soreness.

This is not the case -- and can pose further damage.

"For someone with a moderate fitness level, doing your stretches before exercising won't actually help," Fletcher said.

Cold stretching when you wake up is not the way to go. Your muscles need to warm up or at least get moving beforehand.

"If you are doing a high-intensity workout, you won't receive any short-term benefits from stretching beforehand."

2. Neither is cold-stretching.

"Cold stretching when you wake up is not the way to go. Your muscles need to warm up or at least get moving beforehand. And, it will be painful," Fletcher said.

"With pain, people tend to not perform the stretch properly or as deeply as they would when they are warm."

The same can be said about stretching post-workout.

"There is not much research that suggests the benefits. It hasn't been proven to prevent muscle soreness and it won't help to prevent injury, either -- unless you know you have a specific injury and need to stretch for it," Fletcher said.

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Is this helping or hindering us?

3. Warming up and stretching are definitely not the same thing.

Stretching should not be confused with a warm up (or cool down, for that matter) -- it holds a very different purpose.

"Warm ups are a way of getting your body gradually adjusted to the stress of exercise," Fletcher said.

A warm up is an important part of high-intensity exercise.

"A lot of warm ups will include stretches as this is a good way to get your body moving before you hit it with cardio."

According to Fletcher, an effective warm up should last for 5-10 minutes (depending on the length of your workout) and incorporate a range of dynamic (not static) movements to stretch out your joints. Think a slow bike spin or burpees with some step ups, arm circles and hip lunges.

"Short term, a warm up is an important part of high-intensity exercise. The effect of stretching in this context is a gradual increase in flexibility, but again, it is not a form of injury prevention."

The same logic applies to your cool down, and should include similar movements.

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It's not all about those hamstrings.

4. The duration of your stretches is key.

According to Fletcher, frequency is a common misconception.

"I will see patients who tend to perform one hip flexing stretch and will hold it for one minute. This is not the way to go about it," she said.

"You're better off doing this stretch three to four times, for thirty seconds."

5. Stretching should be all-encompassing.

Too often, stretching can also become too targeted.

"People tend to think that they should target the same muscle when they stretch, so you'll see three different ways to stretch your hamstring or your back," Fletcher said.

"The best approach is to focus on your whole body, as opposed to honing in on one muscle group."

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