Should I stretch before, or after my workouts, or both?
The simple answer is both, but there are some specific things you need to know, to ensure you are staying safe, reducing your risk of injury, and maximizing performance potential.
You should stretch before and after your workout, but all stretching is not made equal.
A proper warm-up will consist of some stretching, but it will be active stretching. Otherwise known as mobility work.
Studies have shown that passive stretching can lower your power and potentially even increase your risk of injury. This is because passive stretching is ‘shutting down’ the Golgi tendon organ, which is the fancy name for the reflex in every muscle that stops it stretching too far.
By relaxing deeply into a passive stretch you are dimming this reflexive response, allowing you steadily greater range of motion. This is all well and good, but it opens you up to injury when you suddenly add an external load (weight) to this now extended range of motion, and the body has a dumbed protection mechanism to make sure you don’t overdo it.
The correct way to stretch before working out is to use active stretches, where you are using the muscles and movement to increase blood flow, warm up the muscles, ligaments, and tendons; ready for the coming workout.
To perform active stretching, you are using the power of the muscles to drive into a stretch, holding for a second and then moving back out. Repeat this, doing reps of 10-20 per movement.
An example would be doing a long-step lunge, lowering under control, and then standing back up; to stretch the hip flexors. For an additional stretch, you could also raise the arms above the head as you lower down.
This will lead to an increase in the range of motion, and you can push it a little further each time. When you subsequently begin your workout, your muscles and joints will already be warmed up, and you will have access to greater range of motion, to maximize the effectiveness of the workout.
After your workout is complete is when you should use passive stretching.
The purpose at this stage is to relax the muscles back to their natural resting length, clear out waste products such as lactic acid, and begin the recovery process.
Failing to complete a stretch down at the end of your workout will likely lead to more soreness and a slower recovery time.
To perform this type of stretching you simply get into a relaxed position and sit into the stretch. Breathe deeply and hold for 30-60 seconds. Focus mostly on the muscle groups you have worked that day.
An example using the hip flexors again: this time you get into a half kneeling position, with one foot on the ground in front of you, and the other knee on the ground below your hips. Let your hips fall forwards until you feel a stretch across the front of the hip, on the side of the back leg.
Hold this position for 30-60 seconds while taking deep, slow breaths.
This sort of stretching should be relaxing. You do not need to push yourself to the point that it hurts. A moderate stretch of the muscles should feel nice – if it’s painful, you’re probably overdoing it. Focus on a moderate stretch, and relaxing your heart rate back to normal through slow, purposeful breathing.
Stretching to Increase Flexibility
You might also want to perform a third type of stretching, which is known as developmental stretching. This is where you are focused on making permanent increases in your range of motion.
You could do this after a workout if you wish, or treat it as its own workout.
With developmental stretching, it is important to thoroughly warm up like you would before any other kind of workout.
Even though it is ‘only stretching’, you are challenging the body to go beyond its current limit and that means you need to be sensible in protecting yourself from injury. You can hurt yourself with aggressive stretching just as easily as you could with aggressive sprinting or aggressive weightlifting.
Developmental stretching requires push progressively further into the range of motion and holding it for extended periods of time; 1-2 minutes. You might want to do partner assisted stretching, or do it yourself.
It is the accumulated time in a deep stretch that will lead to progress and should be performed for 3-4 repetitions of 1-2 minutes each, per stretch.
This kind of stretching will make permanent increases to your range of motion, so if that is a goal for you, you need to dedicate the time to make changes. A quick 20-second stretch might be enough as part of a warm up or cool down, but it will not make much difference in your resting level of flexibility.
You have to train flexibility, just like you would strength or endurance. That means pushing harder and doing more than you have previously done before. Of course, while staying safe and not pushing so hard that you hurt yourself.