There are some ideas, when it comes to health and fitness, that are just deeply embedded in our minds and culture.
One of these – and probably the most prevalent and persistent – is the idea that you absolutely need to stretch both before and after you work out.
This, the thinking goes, will improve your performance, decrease your risk of injury and reduce any soreness that you might experience. In practice, though, most people just don't do either.
And, according to modern research, stretching might not be entirely necessary – or at least, not in the way people think.
So, what's the best approach? Should you stretch before or after a workout? Should you stretch at all?
What Stretching Does and Doesn't Do
As mentioned, there are lots of reasons that people give for why you should start your gym session with some stretches. But, is there any truth to these claims?
Well, to answer that, we have to take each supposed benefit independently. So... let's do that.
First, let's start with the obvious: Flexibility. Stretching most definitely does improve the flexibility – and therefore mobility – of your muscles and other connective tissue.
Although this seems logical, scientists don't actually know if these adaptations take place. it's likely, though, that stretching causes changes to both the structure of your connective tissue and your nervous system which increase your range of motion.
But, people also claim that stretching can improve your athletic performance. Can it? Maybe. It all depends on what you mean by “athletic performance.”
A dancer, gymnast or other athlete that depends on flexibility will absolutely benefit from regular stretching. Most other athletes, especially those who are looking to improve their strength and power, may need to be careful with stretching.
Although the severity of the effect is up for debate, there is evidence to suggest that stretching before a strength-heavy activity could actually reduce your ability to generate force. So, that's no good.
What about injury prevention and soreness reduction? This one is a little tricky. One could argue that, by improving your mobility and balance, stretching does reduce your risk of general injury. And that's true.
But stretching before a workout does not seem to protect you against injuries directly related to your workout.
There is also no research to even suggest that stretching – whether before or after a workout – has any impact on muscle soreness.
When and How to Stretch
Okay, so that's a lot of information. So, how can we use it to answer the question posed at the outset?
Well, we now know that the only thing that stretching is good for is increasing flexibility. And that doesn't mean that stretching is less important.
Flexibility can make a huge difference when it comes to your ability to compete in certain sports and maintain proper form during many exercises.
We also know that it's probably best to avoid stretching right before performing a strength-centric activity. With this knowledge, then, we can make a few inferences.
Just like most other materials, your muscles are more pliable when they're already warm. Based on this, most experts recommend reserving your static stretches for the end of your workout – when your connective tissue is sufficiently warmed up and when those stretches won't interfere with your performance.
Your warmups, though, should also include stretches – just a difference kind.
Instead of the classic static stretch, in which you hold a pose for 20 to 30 seconds, start your workout with dynamic stretches like high kicks and arm circles.
The Straight Answer
Simply put, then, you should stretch both before and after your workout.
But your pre-workout stretches should by dynamic, aimed toward warming you up for the activity to come. After your workout, use static stretches to help you cool down and release any tension developed during your session.