Stretching: So What’s the Deal?

Recently I had a question from a reader regarding stretching.  What’s the deal with stretching anyway?  Is it better to stretch before or after a workout?  Does stretching actually prevent injuries?

Stretching seems to have been the subject of debate for years now.  I have always been a bit traditional when it came to stretching, probably because it feels really good to me, and, since I tend to be a naturally flexible person, I was pretty good at it (Who doesn’t want to take a nap on their knee anyway?).  However, after college, I found that I had less time in my day devoted to my workouts, so what was the first thing to go?  Certainly not my run…it was my stretching!

Of course I noticed that I wasn’t quite as flexible as before.  It took a few tries before my palms laid flat on the floor while doing a hamstring stretch.  However, nothing catastrophic happened simply because I wasn’t spending thirty minutes a day stretching.

About a year after college, I started doing yoga.  Initially I picked it up because it seemed like it would be fun to try something new.  I was surprised by how sore I was after the first few times!  I loved the boost in energy I got from even a twenty minute yoga session.  And so began my love affair with yoga.  I’m actually thinking about getting my teaching certification in yoga because I love it so much.  It has definitely helped in keeping me injury free since college by increasing the strength of my lower leg stabilizing muscles.  My posture is improved, and I feel great!

Now yoga has taken the place of my stretching ritual.  I don’t seem to have time for both daily stretching and a few yoga sessions each week, so I’ve opted just for yoga.  Besides, it’s so much more fun than just plain stretching.  This week, I even introduced my husband to yoga!  He is amazed at how he feels so far!  Since he tends to be a naturally inflexible person, combined with the fact that he sits in a desk chair most of the day, he was, well, a bit of a tight mess.  We’ve done yoga the past two nights before bed, and he reports that it is helping him get to sleep.  (You have no idea how huge this is for my somewhat insomniac husband!!)

Anyway, end of soapbox discussion on yoga and all of its benefits.  Let’s get back to the questions.  So, does stretching actually prevent injuries?  I’m inclined to lean more towards a “no” on this question.  Recent studies seem to be reporting that stretching isn’t quite as powerful in injury prevention as we initially thought.  In fact, if you are looking to do a lot of power lifting or increase your mass through weight lifting, stretching may actual be counter productive to your goals.  (A shorter, thicker muscle can produce more force than a longer, thinner muscle.)

So does this mean we throw out stretching altogether?  Please, no.  Stretching still has a laundry list of benefits just to your psyche and mental energy alone.  (Try to tell me you don’t “feel good” after a bit of stretching.)  Stretching can provide relaxation and improved mental awareness.  Additionally, it can improve joint health by improving tendon and ligament flexibility.

If I have to pick between stretching before or after a workout, I pick afterwards. Your body is warm, stretching will be more comfortable, and you’ll be able to go a little deeper in your stretches.  That being said, I do like to start my day with a yoga routine or a series of stretches.  In fact, here is a link to Ben Greenfield’s morning stretching routing which he does first thing in the morning after some jumping jacks, pushups, and body weight squats: http://www.bengreenfieldfitness.com/2010/08/the-exact-stretch-routine-that-ben-does-every-morning-no-matter-what/

And that dreaded stretching cage that you’ve seen in your gym?  Don’t worry if it looks intimidating.  You can stretch on a mat if you’re worried about getting tangled up in what looks like Spiderman’s web.

Maybe this isn’t quite as much as a “happy place” for you as it is for her…

If you’re interested in trying yoga for the first time, I recommend Yoga Download’s “20 Minute Yoga Download” podcasts.  They are free (just search for 20 Min. Yoga Sessions in iTunes), and several episodes come with downloadable PDF picture guides that follow along with the audio.  Of course, I’m also a fan of CorePower Yoga’s heated yoga classes as well.  Certainly a different price point, but I consider their classes one of my favorite guilty pleasures (along with Starbucks lattes, dark chocolate, and reading books in my Lululemon yoga pants on rainy days…).

Happy Stretching!!

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