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Warmup & Stretching

To stay safe and get the most out of your workout you must always include a pre-workout warm-up before you begin and then finish with a cool down to get your body back into gear. 


About 2001 or 2002 researchers really began studying the effects of stretching and found that athletic performance dropped anywhere from 3-8% after a short bout of static stretching. Among the well-informed coaches, around 2005 stretching started being avoided prior to a workout, practice, or game. Follow the link here and here to a couple good articles on this topic. 


The difference between warm-ups and stretching

During a workout, we can all go from "zero to hero" and push hard immediately, but the safe way to train is to bring the body’s temperature up slowly and loosen up the muscles before we get to do anything serious. That’s what warm-ups are designed to do - increase temperature and loosen muscles, not stretch them. 


Stretching, on the other hand, is done in order to improve overall flexibility. Once muscles have worked they are at their most compliant state and they let us stretch further than we normally would gaining more ground while we are at it.


Timing: It is recommended to start with a warmup and then finish the training session with a cool-down and some stretching (optional, according to most research).


While we grew up stretching before exercise, and many of us are stuck on that, warmups are critical to a better performance and fewer injuries but stretching is somewhat of an optional extra - we can do it, we should do it but not doing it will not cause any issues, most times. Post workout, it's advisable nonetheless. 


Important difference: warm-ups should always be dynamic, always use active exercises (e.g., hops, rotations, chest expansions) to get our bodies ready. The main point is to get the blood flowing, especially during colder seasons. Our bodies benefit from static stretches (standing hamstring stretch, for example) after we have already worked out - our muscles are more susceptible to being stretched further and to hold the stretches longer. 

Why We Don't Stretch Before

On the surface, stretching seems like a great warm-up activity, a pre-game or pre-run stretch. It ’loosens’ the tissue, refreshing the water, breaks up any adhesions, and prepares the body to move quickly without injury. Doesn’t it?


No, it doesn’t – research has fairly consistently shown no benefit in terms of muscle soreness, injury prevention, and according to the research, it may reduce strength and sport performance from 5% to 20%. How does that sound, coaches?


Many of us do something upon waking up called ‘pandiculation’ – a combination of yawning and stretching. While it’s lovely to have a stretch and a yawn after a period of inactivity, it doesn’t prevent a dog from going from asleep to out the door when they hear the mailman, without an intervening period of stretching.


Stretch before you run? Do you stretch before you run for the subway? Are you going to stretch before you do Olympic lifting? The guy building the home across the street from the gym is not stretching before he shoulders a hundred pounds of shingles up a ladder. In other words, those who don’t stretch do not have disastrous movement failure.


A second argument against stretching as a form of musculoskeletal maintenance is that we do not do a lot of movement in our daily life at the end range of motion. Stretching as it is commonly practiced in many yoga classes, sports prep, and even rehab involve taking the stretch to the end-range of motion. It has simply not been shown that exploring the end-range of motion with active or passive stretches improves the quality of movements in daily life.


Finally, all the research points to training being very highly specific – when you train a motion, you train for that motion only, it does not bleed over into other motions so easily or so generally as we have supposed. If you are training yourself in a twisting stretch, you are ‘training’ for that specific stretch, and it may not translate into more or better motion in daily life. 


There are generally two stretching techniques: dynamic stretching and static stretching.


Dynamic stretching is ideally done before a workout and it involves a concise range of motion meant to mimic the movement we make during rigorous exercise. Static stretching involves extending your arms, legs or other body parts to the point of tension and holding that position for a period of time.


Health and medical professionals in the past have encouraged stretching before physical activity as a means of improving flexibility, the full range of motion we can move our joints and muscles in. Flexibility in joints and muscles has proven to be essential in warding off injuries and soreness.


A research team from the University of Zagreb analyzed 104 studies from past years where participants were asked to stretch prior to engaging in physical activity. Researchers used studies that focused on static stretching and stayed away from ones that included a separate activity between stretching and working out.

After evaluating all the data they found that the strength in muscles that were stretched prior to working out decreased by five and half percent. The decrease in strength worsened if the static stretch was held for over 90 second, NYTimes reported.

The study also found that explosive muscular performance -- such as jumping as high as you can or running as hard as you can -- decreased by almost three percent if stretching was done pre-workout.

While experts have not yet honed in on what it is about stretching that inhibits proper muscle function, the research team does believe that the actual stretching of tendons in the muscle may cause the weakening of the muscle itself.

For your best bet, experts urge athletes to stretch only those muscles they plan to utilize during their workout, to limit the amount of time each stretch takes, and to conduct a dynamic (moving) stretch, not a static (stationary, full range of motion) stretch. Save those for after practice. 

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