Do Stretches Before Exercise Work?

Stretches before exercise are an accepted part of a 'good' exercise regime. But how much of a benefit do they provide? Should you stretch before or after exercise, or not at all?

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These are some complicated questions, and not all of them have perfect answers. But, what we do know is...


Assumed Benefits of Pre-Exercise Stretching…

Stretches before exercise might not be as helpful as you think...

These are the benefits that most people list when asked why they do stretches before exercise…

  1. Prevent Injuries
  2. Improve Sports Performance
  3. Increase Flexibility
  4. Lessen Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
  5. It Feels Good

So, does stretching actually help with these?


1. Stretching to Prevent Injuries

This is probably the biggest reason most people do stretches before exercise. And, unfortunately, there's very little evidence to back it up.

In the Science of Flexibility by Michael J. Alter, Alter lists several reasons why stretching before exercise isn't as helpful as you might think. His three reasons why stretching won't prevent injuries are…[1]


  • In animals, heating or immobilization made muscles more flexible, causing them to rupture more easily.
  • Stretching would not affect the muscle when it's doing eccentric contraction, when most damage to the muscle occurs.
  • Stretching can damage the cytoskeletal system (protein in cells that give them shape and integrity).

These are fairly strong arguments for not doing stretches before exercise. In addition, some studies show that pre-exercise stretching does not lower the risk of injuries, and a study done by Burton et al. actually shows an increased risk of injury with pre-exercise stretching.[2]

However, this does not mean that stretching itself is bad. Some info shows that regular stretching at other times may decrease the risk of injury.[3]


So, What Does This All Mean?

Stretching before exercise is probably not a good way to decrease injuries. Though stretching at other times may actually help. So, probably don't stretch right before exercise, but don't stop stretching all together.

A warm-up before exercise can do more to accustom the body to exercise motion and to protect from injuries.[4] So, a warm-up such as light jogging is good for preventing injuries.


2. Improve Sports Performance

Stretching to improve sports performance is another major reason to stretch. But really, 'improve sports performance' is too murky a phrase.

If you're doing exercise that doesn't require the muscle to be stretched fully (like jogging, biking, etc.), then stretching won't do much to help it.[5] You won't be using that increased range of motion you're working for, so why do you think that it'll help you move better?

Also, some studies show that stretching before exertion or training can actually decrease a muscle's ability to produce force.[6] Stretching is actually not as good as you might think for 'improving general sports performance'.

However, there are some areas where stretching can help such as to…


3. Increase Flexibility

Stretching before exercise can increase your flexibility and range of motion (ROM). And this can be very helpful in some athletic endeavors.

For example, in Taekwondo (a martial arts style that uses many high kicks) stretching can be extremely beneficial for execution of those high kicks - so they can be done quickly and without getting hurt.

Similarly, there are many moves in gymnastics that depend on extreme flexibility, and therefore stretching can be a great boon for gymnasts.

However, these are sports that require specific improvements in flexibility to improve specific movements of the competitors. Targeted, specific, flexibility ROM improvement works, while general stretching to improve sports performance in sports that do not require extreme flexibility, just doesn't make sense.


4. Reducing Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Sorry, not great for reducing sore muscles, either. Studies show that stretching before exercise doesn't lower the level of post-exercise soreness.[7]

In-fact, there's very little you can do about muscle soreness with exercise. Stretching can make you feel less sore if you stretch when you have sore muscles, even though it won't actually do more than ease your pain.

This is because in humans, stretching appears to mask muscle pain.[8] This is useful for when you're sore, but it doesn't change the fact that doing stretches before exercise doesn't make you any less sore after the exercise.


5. It Feels Good

This is probably the major reason for natural stretching. When you wake up after a long nap, you stretch your arms above your head.

When cats or dogs have finished lying around, they stretch themselves out and wiggle all around. Stretching specifically before exercise may not give you any benefits, but stretching in general feels great and increases your range of motion.

Just don't go overboard and think that it's a cure-all or something ;-)


In A Nutshell…

Doing stretches before exercise won't give you great benefits. If you want to increase flexibility or stretch at other times, that's great!

But stretching won't stop you from getting inured, or help you recover faster from sore muscles. Sorry.

If you're doing something where you need greater range of motion (martial arts, gymnastics, etc.), stretching after your workout will probably give you both (1) more flexibility because your muscles are warm and (2) be less potentially dangerous.

Try stretching after your workouts if you want to make bigger gains, and be safer.[9]

Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!

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Do Stretches Before Exercise Work?
References:

1. Alter, Michael J. 1996. Science of Flexibility. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.Pp. 187.
2. MacAuley, Domhnall, and Thomas M. Best. 2002. Evidence-Based Sports Medicine. London: BMJ. Pp. 49.
3. Ibid. Pp. 53.
4. Kennedy, Carol A., and Mary M. Yoke. 2009. Methods of Group Exercise Instruction. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Pp. 83.
5. Alter. Pp. 187.
6. Brown, Lee E. 2007. Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Pp. 150.
7. Kennedy. Pp. 83.
8. Alter. Pp. 187.
9. McAtee, Robert E. 1993. Facilitated Stretching. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers. Pp. 8.

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