Is it better to stretch after a workout?

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In this episode, we cover everything there is to know about stretching. Do you need to stretch before or after a workout, or even at all? We answer all the tough flexibility questions in this podcast such as;

  • Is it better to stretch before or after a workout
  • Can stretching reduce DOMS
  • Can stretching decrease injury risk

And much more! Tune in and don’™t forget to head over to iTunes and rate with show or leave a comment in the show notes.

Check out this episode!

Podcast summary

What happens to our muscles when we stretch?

2.52min During a stretch, muscle fibres and tendons lengthen. You are pulling your muscle across to bones in opposite directions and here is only a certain amount of length a muscle can stretch for.

3.33 Your ability to lengthen your muscle to its full capacity is dependent on the genetic predetermined length of the muscle. If you try to stretch beyond this length you are actually stretching connective tissue and you could tear muscle fibres.

5.42 The muscle fibres contain little alarm systems in the muscle fibres, called muscle spindles, which are used in reflex responses to stop over stretch. This is what primarily prevents people from stretching the muscles into full range when they first start stretching.

6.15 The spindles help to retain muscle tone. When you “limber up” after a period of continuous stretch training, over a number of weeks, you are actually teaching muscle spindles to only activate at a new lengthened norm.

Essentially, with stretching you are not creating longer muscles, you are teaching your muscles to relax at longer lengths by desensitising its alarm system. 

How does stretching improve flexibility?

7.43 Muscle can actually be stretched 1.5x its length. When you are stretching for flexibility you are actually teaching the muscles to relax and longer lengths via the muscle spindles. Stretching does not permanently change the stretch capacity of a muscle either. You can work on your flexibility for weeks on end, but once you stop stretching its more than likely you will revert back to normal after a short period of time.

8.50 When you practice chronic stretching, for example if you attend yoga or dance every week, what you’re actually doing is reprogramming your nervous system. You are teaching your brain to be more pain resistant when it comes to those particular stretching movements.

9.33 What’s really interesting is how scientists prove that flexibility is more to do with the brain and the nervous system than muscle. What they do is see what happens when people are put under anaesthesia.

10.00 Anaesthesia has an effect on the nervous system and brain by in the simplest terms putting you to sleep. When you’re asleep your brain cannot be activated to tell you things are painful or you are getting over stretched. What they have found is that people are significantly more flexible when they are “under” and return to normal stiffness when they awaken. Source: Neurophysiologic influences on hamstring flexibility: a pilot study.

12.20 Post injury it is beneficial to stretch. What you are doing by stretching is making sure connective tissue to realigns properly after injury. After injury the muscle repairs itself by laying down tissue in a disorganised mess. Because of this disorganised meshing of tissue, this area becomes more prone to re-injury. This is because when the muscle contracts under load, this area then becomes a point of weakness.

13.25 Stretching helps to realign fibres in the direction of muscle pull, making it stronger and less likely to re-injure.

Is stretching essential for sports?

14.18 Stretching is not essential for a lot of sports and in some cases can be detrimental. Take for example power lifters they don’t want to be flexible when lifting weights. In fact, they need hypersensitive muscle spindles to be able to detect when their joints are in vulnerable positions.

15.18 If you do push past the muscles stretch limit you will want to know about it. Muscle fibres will tear and ligaments can come off bone. This is very common in over stretch injuries, for example shoulder dislocations when lifting weights above the head or ankle sprains whilst running.

16.00 In sports like weight lifting you only need to exercise to the capacity of the machines or certain exercises and the goal in weight training is to increase muscle tone. If some one already has good range at their joint (every healthy individual should) then there is no added benefit to the sport to be more flexible. In fact, being more flexible and pushing past natural ranges could cause more injury than benefit.

17.10 This may also be true for other sports like golf, netball, basketball or swimming. You may not need to be any more flexible than what you already are. Stretching may not improve your performance or wellbeing.

17.48 This same idea is true for athletes with hypermobile joints who actually have trouble keeping joints in proper alignment rather than over stretched. Hypermobile people lack tension at joints, so stretching would make this problem worse.

19.17 Exercise like HITT training, repetitive sports like running and cycling, may warrant stretching. Other sports like ballet and gymnastics also require athletes to be very flexible. In these cases stretching is crucial to performance and actually allows you to be able to perform at your sport.

Should you stretch before exercise?

21.55 If you stretch before your muscles are warm, there is risk that you may micro-tear muscle fibers. This may result in injury. If you’re going to stretch before exercising, make sure you are warmed up first with dynamic movement.

22.21 Stretching before exercise would only be useful if you are trying to prime a certain motor pattern of movement for your chosen sport. When I say “prime” I mean going over a movement so your brain starts to remember how to execute that move. It’s like going over a map, over and over again in your brain, remembering the fine details of how to get to your desired location.

22.46 Priming relevant for sports that have a high degree of skill involved, accuracy and precision, for example; gymnastics and dancing. Some coaches use dynamic active stretching in these sports to warm up the muscles in the direction in which they have to fire. All this is doing is getting the neutral pathways from the brain to muscle fibres revved up before they start doing complicated exercise patterns.

For example a dancer might practice high kicks, kicking at a lower height so they can perform a high kick in their dance routine.

23.30 In a study using teenage athletes researchers tested different types of stretching to see if it had an effect on sports performance. They took 30 students and put them through 3 different testing sessions:

  • Pre exercise static stretching
  • Pre exercise dynamic exercise
  • Pre exercise dynamic exercise and static stretching

The students performed the given stretch program and then participated in 4 different events;

  1. Vertical jump
  2. Medicine-ball toss
  3. 10-yard sprint
  4. Pro-agility shuttle run

24.58 They found when the students used dynamic exercise, or dynamic exercise in combination with static stretching they improved performance on the vertical jump, medicine ball toss and sprint. The researchers concluded that dynamic exercise is more beneficial as a warm up than static stretching for power based exercise.

This is why dynamic stretching might be a better option for athlete’s pre competition for performance because of the movement and muscle warming component from movement, rather than just stretching alone.

In other sports like running, weights, netball and basketball, stretching before hand is a waste of time. 

Should you stretch after a workout?

26.35 If you want to stretch, for the sake of gaining flexibility, it is better to stretch after a workout solely because your muscles are warm and hence more elastic, making it less likely to cause injury. So really stretching before or after a workout is equally not that important for most people.

27.36 For some athletes after exercise stretching has the potential to reduce imbalances in the body caused by tightness in one area over another. For example if you’re a runner with one tight right hip flexor, compared to a more flexible left hip flexor. Imbalances like this have the potential to impact run performance. In this rehabilitation case stretching IS beneficial. Stretching is beneficial in a rehabilitation context.

Another example where stretching may be useful after exercise, is if you have previously had an injury where you have lost flexibility. When you injure yourself, the body repairs muscle fibres in a haphazard way. Fibres are knitted together in a clump or mesh, which can reduce the lengthening capacity of a muscle.

Stretching helps to realign these meshed fibres so they function better and allow normal range of movement of the muscle to restore.

In other cases, stretching may not be useful at all. For example fitness enthusiasts or athletes with large amounts of muscle mass, like power lifters, they may see no benefit at all from stretching after workouts.

Can stretching reduce the risk of injury?

30.15 It can reduce the risk of injury due to preventing tightness of muscle causing imbalances and poor motor patterns. For example if a runner has tight hamstring on one leg and uses a stretching program to even out this imbalance it may prevent an injury.

These types of imbalances are typically cause by;

 

  • Repetitive strain
  • Incorrect technique
  • Biomechanical issue

Apart from the above reasons being more flexible in general, is not going to reduce your risk of being injured. This is because there are many reasons why injuries occur, that are unrelated to flexibility.

If you are looking to reduce your injury risk the best thing to do is;

  • To practice good technique in your chosen sport.
  • Make sure you warm up gradually before exercising.
  • Build up the intensity of workouts gradually over the course of time.
  • Be consistent with exercise.
  • Workout in safe environments.
  • Wear proper footwear or safety equipment. 

Can stretching reduce muscle soreness (DOMS)?

35.01 Stretching does not improve muscle soreness post exercise. You can stretch all you like but it will not change how sore you get after a hard training session. Delayed onset muscle soreness is there because your have exercised the muscle so hard you have created micro-tears in muscle fibres.

35.51 This process causes the body to repair and rebuild muscle to be stronger and cope with the exercise you gave it. DOMS is an indication you have worked hard – embrace it. You can’t speed up this recovery process. In other words, post exercise recovery has more to do with the training load, sleep and nutrition.

36.45 Researchers have done studies on this too. In a randomised control trial researchers looked at 12 studies that tested stretching before and after exercise. All of the research papers suggested that stretching was not important before or after exercise or for aiding DOMS. 

Are there any benefits to stretching daily?

37.54 There is no benefit of stretching unless you have a specific purpose like recovering from injury or for sports performance. Keep in mind that you should never stretch a muscle that is still inflamed, bruised or painful. Stretching is done as part of the rehabilitation process well after the muscle has healed.

38.35 I know some people are going to say, they stretch daily for things like a tight neck from doing computer work or sitting down all day. I would argue that stretching even in these cases is a bit of a time waster.

A lot of work place injuries are primarily caused by weakness and fatigue in those postural muscles, not tightness.

39.45 The reason why most people get a sore neck or lower back from office based work is because they have weak postural muscles. They also have strong opposing muscles from the way they sit and relax into the chair. A strength-training program for those muscles would alleviate those issues, without having to stretch. In addition, learning how to set up the desk properly and sit with better posture would also be more beneficial than stretching.

What are the different types of stretching?

Ballistic 

41.30 This is called bouncing stretching. You jerk the muscle into a stretched position forcing it further into the stretch with each bounce. This type of stretching is more prone to injury.

Dynamic 

42.25 Dynamic stretching is stretching with movement; think of it like Bikram yoga. You move in and out of stretched positions, starting slow and some times gradually increasing in pace. It’s not a jerky movement; you’re lengthening muscles in a controlled fashion.

PNF- (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation)

43.02 This is where the muscle is put in a stretched position, the person is then asked to contract the muscle in the opposite direction to the stretch for 10seconds. This causes muscle spindles to switch off. The muscle is then pushed further into the stretch, the stretch is held and the above contraction/stretch cycle is repeated. 

Active 

44.40 This is where you hold your body in a stretched position where muscles are activated trying to hold the muscles in that position. For example holding your leg up in the air, where your hamstrings are stretching, but your quads and hip flexors are contracting to hold the leg up. This activation of opposite muscle group helps the hamstrings relax. This is called reciprocal inhibition.

Static

45.00 Static stretching is similar to passive stretching. It’s when you stretch yourself using objects but there is no muscle activation. For example laying on the floor doing a back twist where you’re fully relaxed and just positioned your body in a way it stretches itself.

Passive

46.10 Is where another person stretches the person for them, there is no muscle activation of the person getting treated. This is the type of stretching a physiotherapist would do as part of treatment on you. 

Isometric

46.20 Isometic stretches is where you hold the muscle in a stretched position and then apply force and try to contract the muscle against the stretch. For example you have your leg up on a very high beam in front of you. You then apply force down on the beam contracting muscles to do so. This causes inhibition of the stretch response because the same stretched muscles are trying to contract.

Is one style of stretching better than another?

 4.59 Some forms of stretching is more effective that others for specific sports. For example PNF is traditionally used in flexibly based sports like gymnastics, dancing and martial arts.

Outside of sports PNF and isometric stretching seems to be the most effective at achieving flexibility. This is because you are actively switching off muscle spindles and pushing past your initial pain threshold in the stretch. You can get a lot more flexibility in a short period of time and this technique is a lot less injury prone.

48.38 Research was done on high school students comparing different types of stretching. Researchers used 12 high schools and divided the schools up into 2 groups. Each group was given a stretching program, one consisting of dynamic stretches and the other group with static stretching.

The groups completed the stretches before soccer games in attempt to reduce injury rates. The conclusion was that the group doing the dynamic stretching came out with 17 injuries, whereas the static stretchers in total came out with 20 injuries.

Statistically, there was no significant difference in the rate of injuries regardless of the stretching protocol. So if you want to stretch before a game, then choose any type of stretching, because in terms of injury prevention there is no difference between types except when it comes to ballistic stretching.

Ballistic stretching is a thing of the past, it is no longer used because it’s so very ineffective and causes injury. The bouncing and forcing of muscles causes more tension than relaxation and as a result causes more muscle tears. 

The verdict on stretching

50.20 Stretching is one of those weird things everyone does because they think it’s good for them, but there isn’t much scientific evidence to say that’s its beneficial. So for me its one of those things that I only include into plans if someone really needs it. For example; tightness, imbalances, injury recovery or sports specific purposes. Other than that, I don’t think everyone needs to stretch, nor would I encourage anyone to waste valuable exercise time on stretching unless they really needed it.

If you’re time poor use “stretching time” to do more exercise, rather than waste you’re time stretching. The benefits of more exercise far out weights any minor, if any, benefits from stretching.

Do you stretch?

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