The Myth Of Stretching Before Your Workouts
What’s the first thing you do when you get to the gym?
If you’re like many people, you might start out by doing a little bit of stretching.
This probably includes some basic, static stretches for the muscle groups that you are going to be exercising that day.
And, really, this makes perfect sense…
I mean, everyone from your parents to your high school gym teacher have been telling you that you should stretch before exercising.
But what if that advice wasn’t actually very good advice at all?
What if stretching before your workouts provided little to no actual benefit?
Well, before we get mired in baseless speculation here, let’s start by taking a look at some of the benefits that this practice allegedly offers.
Why People Stretch Before Working Out
As I mentioned before, it is pretty common knowledge that stretching precedes exercise.
We’ve all been told this at one time or another – but why?
What are the actual reasons that we are supposed to stretch before working out?
Turns out there are several:
- To help prevent injuries
- To improve performance at the gym
- To accelerate muscle recovery
- To reduce post-workout muscle soreness
Wow, those are some pretty important-sounding benefits, huh?
The problem, however, is that none of them are true – at least as they relate to static stretching before working out.
Let’s go through some of the evidence.
Turns out static stretching doesn’t do much to reduce the occurrence of injuries. In 2006, researchers used the results from 5 controlled studies to conclude that static stretching made no difference to the frequency or likelihood of exercise-related injuries, across a variety of specific injury types and muscle groups.
Next up, let’s take a look at the performance claim. Will static stretching make you stronger, helping you lift heavier weights?
Well, based on this 2007 study on how stretching impacts muscle power production and activation, researchers concluded that it had absolutely no effect on either one.
But what about muscle recovery and limiting post-workout soreness, does static stretching at least help with those?
Nope – at least not according to a 2010 study on Australian football players which concluded that static stretching did not aid muscle recovery at all, nor did it impact post-training soreness. This is further corroborated by a 2007 study which found that “muscle stretching does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness in young healthy adults.”
So, given what all of these studies tell us, static stretching doesn’t seem to deliver on its promises.
But does that mean that static stretching is useless – that it should be abandoned entirely?
Well, let’s see…
What Is Static Stretching Good For?
Ok, so now that we’ve hopefully established that many of the traditional benefits don’t apply, what are we left with? Is there an appropriate application for this kind of stretching?
Yes, it turns out that there is.
Whenever you exercise in a way that specifically involves flexibility, you should do some appropriate static stretches.
This applies to various different sports – and, of course, gymnasts who rely on comprehensive static stretching routines to develop their flexibility.
Still, even in these cases, static stretching will be more effective if it is done after the exercise, not before.
This is because you want your muscles to be warmed up before you do static stretching – so post-exercise is the way to go if you participate in any sports that require flexibility.
For the rest of us, however, who get most of our regular exercise in the gym lifting weights or doing cardio, static stretching just isn’t very useful. You can safely do away with it.
What Should I Be Doing Then?
I know what you’re probably thinking…
“Chris, all of that sounds reasonable, but I feel like I should be doing something before attempting to lift heavy weights.”
And if that is your inclination, you would be completely right: you should be doing something to warm-up before you start your proper sets.
What you should be doing is called ‘dynamic stretching’ – and you should be doing it for all of the key muscle groups that you will be training that day.
Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching has been shown to be highly beneficial to do before your workouts. It can help increase your strength, endurance, and speed, according to this comprehensive 4-week study on dynamic warm-ups.
Further, it will help reduce the chance of your getting hurt, since dynamic stretching has been found to raise body temperature, improve blood flow to the muscles, and help with coordination – all of which are important for remaining injury-free.
The easiest way to start incorporating dynamic stretching into your routine is to do a few warmup sets of whatever your main exercise is before moving on to your proper sets.
So let’s say you start your chest workouts with the bench press. Instead of moving right into a weight that is challenging for you, start by doing 3-4 warm-up sets with relatively low weight.
This will put your muscles through the full range of motion that you will be working them in, and properly prime you for the later, heavy sets.
One specific protocol that I have found helpful is doing the following sequence of warm-up sets before lifting heavier weights.
- Warm-up set 1: 12 reps at 50% of your working weight
- Warm-up set 2: 10 reps at 50% of your working weight
- Warm-up set 3: 4 reps at 70% of your working weight
- Warm-up set 4: 1 rep at 90% of your working weight
Now, if you haven’t been warming up properly before, this may sound like a lot of sets to do before your actual workout…
But, really, the entire process takes less than 10 minutes (resting 1 minute between each warmup set), and after those 4 sets you’ll find that you are far more ready – both physically and psychologically – for your main sets.
In fact, this is the warm-up protocol that I personally follow, and I wholeheartedly recommend that you give it a try too.
So, in short, next time you get to the gym, feel free to skip all of the static stretching that you usually start with. Instead, begin by dynamically stretching the muscle groups that you are about to train, and you’ll be good to go.