Right when you finally got that whole “don’t stretch until the end of your workout” thing down, a growing number of fitness classes and trainers are telling people to get their stretch on mid-workout.
Here’s how it works: You burn out a major muscle group. Then you take a few minutes after to stretch it out, either with bend-and-hold static stretching or by working the opposing muscle group. While the technique is a mainstay of many barre classes and the occasional HIIT workout, it’s also becoming more common in weight rooms. And we’ll admit, it feels pretty fabulous.
But what’s the point?
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Stretching, Flexibility and Recovery
The major reason for stretching — whether it comes at the end or middle of a workout — is increasing flexibility. After all that muscle contracting (or shortening) you do while strength training, stretching helps get the muscle back to its pre-workout length.
“If our muscles are like a pillow, the fascia is the pillow case,” explains Lina Midla, chief training officer for The Barre Code. “Immediately following an exercise is when we have the most stuffing, or blood, within that pillow helping to stretch the pillow case.”
“Similar to stretching at the end of your workout, stretching a given muscle immediately after you fatigue it helps to flush out byproducts and jumpstart the recovery process — only sooner and slightly more effectively,” she says. So a mid-sesh stretch does have some immediate payoffs.
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When Active Recovery Works Better Than Passive
“Eccentric exercises focus on lengthening the muscle group under load as opposed to shortening it.”
However, when it comes to flushing metabolic byproducts from your muscles (like the hydrogen ions that create that “burning” sensation in your body), stretching won’t do all the work. No matter when you stretch, holding poses isn’t nearly as effective as light aerobic exercise, according to Dean Somerset, CSCS, an Alberta-based kinesiologist and medical exercise specialist. “During static stretching, you’re not getting the same mechanical pumping to push blood back to the heart and lymphatic system.” To reap these rewards, Somerset suggests a light jog or a bout on the elliptical after a strength training session.
One downside to static stretching during your workout: In its simplest form, it’s like stretching out a rubber band. Post-stretch, muscles aren’t going to be able to contract as well as before, and you need that strong contraction to actually build strength and stay injury-free. So if you’re static stretching a muscle mid-workout, don’t plan on working it anymore afterward.
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How to Strengthen One Muscle and Stretch Another
While Midla doesn’t take The Barre Code students through static stretches mid-workout. In her opinion, switching between sympathetic-revving exercises and parasympathetic-promoting stretching turns down the intensity too much. However, she does use a different approach to loosening muscles mid sweat.
After burning out a muscle group, Midla gives it some rest by working an opposing muscle group. She does this by using a superset format. You’ve probably done this in some of your HIIT or strength classes without even realizing it, and it’s a smart way to format a workout.
“If we perform push-ups, which really work the chest, the next exercise might be reverse flys, which involve training the back while opening through the chest,” she says.
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That “opening” is referred to as an eccentric movement. “Eccentric exercises focus on lengthening the muscle group under load as opposed to shortening it,” says Paul Landi, CES, fitness manager at Professional Physical Therapy in Connecticut. “By doing this, you give the muscle group a small break while giving tissue an active, rather than passive, ‘stretch.’”
He notes that, while eccentric exercises are a significant contributor to DOMS, they do promote flexibility. Research published in the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy suggests that eccentric exercises are about twice as beneficial at improving flexibility compared to static stretching.
“Agonist-antagonist supersets like these have been around since the 70s for bodybuilders,” Somerset says. “You see a combined benefit of strength and mobility.” That’s the one-two punch in terms of fitness level, when your muscles can pull, push, squat and lift, plus have full range of motion while doing so.
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How to Structure Your Workout with Supersets
Some examples of user-friendly agonist-antagonist supersets include deadlifts and high-knees, bicep curls and tricep extensions, rows and chest flys, hip abduction and hip adduction, and dead bugs and bird-dogs.
When you hit the gym with these exercises in mind, aim for 10 reps of the first move, immediately followed by 10 reps of the second exercise. Rest for 30 seconds before doing the second set. Then, do three sets total before moving on to the next superset. (If you’re looking specifically to build strength, then you’ll want to lift heavier and perform fewer reps, resting for 90 to 120 seconds between sets.)
Bonus: Performing supersets like these doesn’t limit your ability to work the “stretched” muscle later in your workout. And that’s because you’re not stretching it to full capacity. That means you can do more reps at higher intensities and get even better results and more flexibility. Basically a multi-level win in terms of improving your fitness — and you get more done in a shorter timeframe.
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Stretching to Say “Ahh”
While smart supersets help you gain strength and flexibility at once, there’s still a case for stretching post-sweat. And it all comes down to stretching’s ability to calm down the nervous system. (Bye-bye “fight-or-flight; hello relaxation.)
“At the end of a workout, stretching helps reduce neural tone to kick off parasympathetic nervous response,” Somerset explains. “It puts you into ‘relax and chill mode,’ adjusting neural tone to make you feel more comfortable and loose.”
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