Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Stretching: Before or After?

We all have our little routines at the gym, a nice mental checklist to follow so we can get in and get out having accomplished everything we needed to in order to feel good for the rest of the day.  I see people all the time come in to the gym, lace up those shoes, put on that sweatband, fire up that ipod, and head right over the stretching mat, where they tend to contort themselves for a good 5-10 minutes before hopping right on the elliptical and pumping away an hour.  Chances are you've seen similar things, if you're at the gym for any reasonable amount of time.  Is there anything wrong with it?  It doesn't appear so, but if you follow a similar routine (and don't be ashamed, as thousands upon thousands do), you might actually be hindering your workout performance without even realizing it.

How the heck are you doing that?  Stretching.  Specifically, static stretching.  This involves placing a leg or an arm or a foot or hand or WHATEVER in a position that lengthens the respective muscle to its highest tolerance, then putting pressure on it to go slightly further.  The pressure/light pain you feel is the stretch, and over time it can dramatically increase flexibility.  This is a good thing.  So what are most people doing wrong then?  

They static stretch BEFORE they work out.  Believe it or not, this is a big no-no.  Static stretching before a workout can actually decrease overall muscular strength by UP TO 30%!!!  Wow!  What the heck?  How's that possible?  I thought static stretching before a workout helped!  That's what everyone told me! 

And you'd have a valid point, because it's pretty common knowledge to stretch before working out.  But why should you work hard to break this trend?

Well you see, when you static stretch, you will be forcing your muscle to stretch further than it has before, and at the same time you're also basically de-loading your muscles, forcing them into a state in which they cannot contract with nearly as much intensity as was previously possible.  It's like stretching a rubber band, and holding it at near breaking point for an extended period of time.  When you finally do release the tension, it might be a little longer, thinner, and less springy overall.  It has lost a lot of strength, and so have you.  

And there's something else too, which can also be explained with a little rubber band analogy.  Imagine sticking a rubber band in the freezer for a while.  Now, after a few hours, take it out, and try to stretch it.  I bet it'll snap almost instantly.  That freezer represents your average lifestyle activities, slow, monotonous, and cold.  It may even represent sleep, where you are most likely at a state of zero movement.  Your muscles aren't being used, and so in a way they "freeze" into very inflexible positions.  Now imagine trying to stretch cold muscles, just like you tried to stretch that rubber band.  Doesn't sound like a good idea, does it?  It sure isn't!  And most likely, eventually you'll get the same result.  You'll experience a muscle tear.  So why do you go into the gym and stretch those cold muscles to the breaking point day in and day out?

  Bottom line: Don't static stretch pre-workout.

However after a workout, static stretching is a great idea!  Your muscles are warm, you're through with using them, and if you just let them sit in their tired, spastic state, you'll most likely LOSE flexibility.  So stretch them out!  It's been shown in all sorts of studies that those who stretch post-workout are most likely to avoid future injury.  It's a pretty simple concept, right?  

But there MUST be something you can do pre-workout, right?  I mean you don't just expect to hop on that elliptical without some sort of warmup?  Good news for you, there's a different kind of stretching that will not only warm up your muscles, but won't stretch them to the breaking point or lose you strength.  These kinds of stretches are called dynamic stretches or ballistic stretches.  They involve stretching muscles through movement, encouraging them to activate and work at their highest potential.  It's much easier to show rather than tell about dynamic stretches, so here's a YouTube video that goes through a great pre-workout dynamic stretch routine.

(By the way, that guy is probably one of the strongest and fittest and most shredded on all of youtube, and is sponsered by several high end supplement brands, so I definitely trust his word, or lack of them, on most things.  Check his videos out, verrryyy inspirational.)

I will vouch for dynamic stretching all day long, and it's exactly what I do before every Oly-lift workout.  Warm up those hips, legs, shoulders, back, arms and neck.  You want to stay loose and primed for any sort of upcoming activity.  

Oh, and make sure you take time to actually do a routine somewhat like the one above.  It's worth it, and can prevent injury.  And believe me, you DON'T want to be injured.  

Stay loose, stay flexible, and good luck!

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