By now, you’ve probably heard you should ditch static stretching — those 10- to 30-second stretches — before breaking a sweat. But the science behind why, and what you should be doing instead, might not be so obvious. As you gear up for your next gym session, it’s time to bone up on the best ways to ease in and out of your workout for optimal results.
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The Case Against Static Stretching Pre-Workout
In the past few years, fitness professionals have started to warn against static stretching pre-workout. The reason? Over-stretching your muscles before you put them to work may hinder muscle strength and performance. While there’s still some conflicting science, most experts agree that longer holds are best left for the after portion of your routine.
“Static stretches don’t prepare the body for the activity and demands that you’re going to place on it during exercise,” says Jason D’Amelio, certified athletic trainer and owner of Total Athletic Performance Training in New York City. “If you’re looking to achieve optimal results for your performance, then you need to specifically focus on pre-workout activities that will increase range of motion and the mobility of joints.”
As an alternative, studies say foam rolling could help prep your body for activity. That’s because it loosens up your fascia (the layer of tissue that wraps around your muscles and organs), allowing you to move more freely. Another strong substitute for static holds: Dynamic stretching, done right before your kick your exercise into high gear. In a perfect world, you’d start with the foam roller, follow it up with swift, active stretches and then jump into your workout. Here’s how to nail the more dynamic movements.
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Dynamic Stretching: Your Best Warm-Up Tool
Dynamic stretching fires up your muscles and joints, getting them ready for the work ahead. “It really stimulates the neuromuscular system and increases blood flow to the muscles,” says D’Amelio.
Some dynamic stretches include side and reverse lunges, toy soldier walks, walk outs and hip circles. But the real key is mimicking the movement patterns you’ll be using in your workout. For example, lunges and squats get your glutes, quads and hamstrings ready for a run while jumping jacks might prep you for plyometrics. (Check out this dynamic warm-up for more ideas.)
“The number one focus should be good, quality movements,” says D’Amelio. “You don’t want to rush it, in that you’re not going through the full range of motion, but you don’t want to go slow enough that it becomes more static. You should feel your temperature rise.” Aim for at least five minutes for your active warm-up. Ten to 15 minutes is even better if you’ve got the time.
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Other Approaches to Active Stretching
Some experts have their own variations on an active warm-up, too. Nic Bartolotta, physical therapist and chief clinical officer of Rolflex, likes to focus the attention on eccentric movement, or the downward phase of an exercise. Known as dynamic contraction technique, you first work the muscle to fatigue in the concentric or upward phase. That might mean standing up from a low lunge or a squat. You focus on this concentric action until you feel a burn in the muscle. Then, after pausing in the contracted position for a few seconds, you’ll slowly move the muscle through the eccentric (downward) motion.
Take a typical hip flexor stretch as an example. Bartolotta explains that most people will get in a lunge position, with their back knee on the ground. They push their hips forward until they feel a stretch or discomfort in the back leg’s hip flexor. “But unless you fire up the hip flexor first, it’s not going to stay active during the stretch,” so you’re not loosening up the muscle effectively, Bartolotta explains.
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Following Bartolotta’s protocol, you would instead move from a low lunge to a staggered standing position until you feel the muscle burn. Then, pause at the top before slowly lowering back down to stretch the hip. Do this for two to three reps to really unlock and lengthen the muscle fibers. Because you focus on the slow, eccentric stretch after working the muscle to fatigue, “you’re keeping the muscle under tension, but it’s getting longer. That’s the secret sauce to active stretching,” Barolotta says.
This type of stretching falls in line with a principle known as reciprocal inhibition. When you activate or contract a muscle (say, the hamstring of your back leg in the lunge), the antagonist muscle (in the case of a lunge, the quad and hip flexors of your back leg) can relax and stretch.
Work dynamic contraction technique into a few exercises, like the lunge or calf raises, to help increase your mobility and maintain proper body alignment. Then you’re ready to push through a solid workout.
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Static Stretching: Your Post-Workout Rx
Even though you might want to pass on static stretching before a workout, that doesn’t mean you should give it up altogether. There’s still a case for holding your stretches for at least 10 seconds and up to 30 seconds post-workout. This helps improve your range of motion and reduces stiffness. Doing so when your body is warm can also improve the safety and effectiveness of this type of stretching. Aim to cool down with static stretches for at least five minutes post exercise. And if you’re in a group fitness class, that means not skipping out early at the end!