Stretching is an important component of a good workout routine and one that too many people skip or don’t emphasize enough. Yet there are lots of myths and misconceptions surrounding the benefits of stretching. In fact, some people stretch at the wrong time or stretch incorrectly, and this reduces the benefits that stretching the muscles offer.
Are you buying into these myths and not getting the full benefits that stretching offers? Let’s look at common misconceptions about stretching and how stretching before or after a workout affects physical performance and muscle and tendon health. Here are some of the most common myths about stretching you shouldn’t believe.
Myth #1: The Best Time to Stretch is Before a Workout
When do you stretch? The best time to do static stretching is at the end of a workout. Static stretching means holding a stretched muscle for 10 to 40 seconds to elongate the muscle without causing pain. Some studies suggest that if you static stretch a muscle before a workout, it can reduce exercise performance for power and strength exercises. However, studies are conflicting on this and not all show a decline in performance. The length of the stretch seems to matter too. Stretching for less than 30 seconds doesn’t seem to reduce exercise performance while holding a stretch for 60 seconds does.
Instead, do dynamic stretches where you lengthen the muscle but don’t hold it. Dynamic stretching doesn’t reduce performance. In fact, studies show it improves strength and power performance if you do strength or power movements right after dynamic stretching. For example, a study found dynamic stretching boosted sprint speeds and agility in pro soccer players. So, the best approach is to do dynamic stretches before a workout and static stretching afterward.
Myth: Stretching Lengthens Muscles
When you stretch, the muscle doesn’t actually lengthen. The muscle fibers elongate and then relax into a larger mass as the muscle fibers are stretched, similar to what happens when the skeletal muscle of your arm relaxes. In that sense, stretching increases flexibility. However, any elongation of the muscle is only temporary.
How does stretching improve flexibility? Your muscles have “sensors” called muscle spindles that sense when you’re stretching a muscle too far. If the spindles perceive an overzealous stretch, they send a signal for the muscle to contract or shorten to reduce the risk of injury. However, when you slowly lengthen a muscle in a controlled manner, as with stretching, the muscle spindles don’t perceive a threat as it would if a muscle suddenly lengthened. So, you can elongate it a little more. You increase a muscle’s tolerance for stretch. However, it’s not permanent.
Myth #2: Stretching Lowers the Risk of Injury
Stretching can improve flexibility, but it doesn’t seem to reduce risk of injury. In fact, a meta-analysis of 361 studies looking at static stretching and its effect on injuries found no evidence that stretching is protective. Some studies have even found that stretching before running might even make you more likely to sustain an overuse injury or muscle strain. You should still do a thorough warm-up and dynamic stretching before launching into a workout though. Your muscles and tendons should be warm before you launch into a workout.
Myth #3: Stretching Reduces Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Who doesn’t want to avoid stiff, painful muscles after doing a hard workout? Can stretching prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), the achy muscles you get after a workout your muscles aren’t accustomed to? There’s scant evidence to support this based on the current research.
A study of more than 2,000 adults found that stretching had little effect on DOMS. The reason your muscles ache after a hard workout is the muscle fibers are pulled and stretched to the point they develop microtears in the fibers. Stretching does little to prevent those tears from forming. You might feel a little better after you stretch a sore, stiff muscle but stretching won’t prevent after-workout soreness. The timing of stretching has little impact either. Stretching before, during, or after a workout doesn’t seem to affect delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Myth #4: The Only Time You Should Stretch is After a Workout
Yes, you should stretch after a workout, but that’s not the only time. Stretch when you wake up in the morning and every hour or so after sitting. Stretching several times a day helps improve flexibility and avoid the stiffness that comes from sitting too long. Stretching your legs after sitting for a while also lowers the risk of developing a blood clot in the leg. So, don’t just stretch after a workout, stretch in the morning and throughout the day. It’s relaxing too.
Myth #5: Stretching is Good for Your Muscles but Does Nothing for Your Heart
Believe it or not, research shows that stretching is heart-healthy. A study found that 12 weeks of stretching improved arterial stiffness and enhanced blood flow. In response to stretching, arteries distended more easily, so there was less resistance to blood flow. The participants in the study also experienced a drop in blood pressure. Stretching isn’t a substitute for an aerobic workout for heart health, but it may have heart health benefits of its own.
The Bottom Line
Now you’re familiar with some of the most common myths about stretching and know more about how and when to do it. Stick to dynamic stretches before launching into a workout and static stretches afterward. But don’t skip the stretches!
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