Many people don’t really understand the benefits of stretching. For the most part, they stretch either once when they have completed their exercise routine, or stretching may occur just before getting started with an exercise. If you’ve ever wondered what the optimal time to stretch is —before, during, or after a workout—you’re not alone. It can be confusing to know when is best.
In this article, I’ll outline the benefits of stretching, and how and when you should go about incorporating stretching into your routine.
Table of Contents
Before we tackle the benefits of stretching, let’s first learn about the basics.
Types of Stretching
Stretching is a way to keep your body open and access a range of motion that is more free and fluid. It’s an important aspect of exercise, giving the body space and flexibility to safely complete movements, while also help decrease the risk of injury and sore muscles
There are a few different types of stretching. Some stretching styles will be more beneficial at specific points of exercise.
Done during and after workouts, this is a longer held stretch where the body stays still in the stretching pose.
This type of stretching is done before and during workouts. It requires you to move through stretches repeatedly in a fluid motion.
This type of stretching is done after working out and requires assistance from bodyweight, equipment, or other props, so that your body relaxes and the gravity/equipment does the work.
This type of stretching is done before, during and after a workout and involves contracting the opposing muscle to the area you are relaxing into the stretch.
How to Stretch Safely
Be sure that you are not completely cold before you stretch. If it’s a pre-workout stretch, then shake your body out a bit to get some warmth generating through your limbs before you stretch them.
Hold each stretch (if it is static) for at least 30 seconds. Give your body time to accept the length. This is much safer for your tissues.
Stay at your edge. If you push too hard and feel pain, you’re doing the body damage rather than good. Back off to about 80%.
Benefits of Stretching
Now that you understand the basics, let’s go through the benefits of stretching, giving you a holistic view of when to implement stretching into your exercise regime.
Stretching Before Exercise
Starting off your workout with opening up your body is great for being able to access more range of motion in your athletic performance. Here are several reasons to stretch before exercise.
1. Prevent Injury
When you elongate your muscles through stretching, you reduce the risk of ripping and tearing muscle fibers and tissues. This can happen as a result of pushing the body too soon. If you go straight into exercise without having warmed up or moved at all, the areas that are still tense and/or stuck are the most susceptible to injury.
2. Get Fresh Oxygen Flow
Lack of oxygen flow can hinder your performance, as well as lead to serious injury within your joints. Pains, aches and tension can be felt when you begin to exercise if these areas haven’t been supplied with the oxygenated blood. Stretching encourages flow of fresh oxygen through your bloodstream to the rest of the body, not only relieving pain and reducing injury, but aiding in your movement performance. 
3. Reduce Fatigue
You’ll feel more able to withstand longer exercise sessions when you stretch before a workout, as you’ll be less likely to experience fatigue in your muscles. Stretching awakens the areas that need a more time and encouragement to wake up, so that they can efficiently take you through longer workouts.
4. Increases Energy and Motivation
Blood accumulates in muscles that haven’t been used or lengthened. As mentioned above, in revitalizing the circulation to the muscles, you’ll feel a surge in energy levels. The blood also flows through to the brain (especially if you are stretching through your back and spine) so that you have increased concentration levels, giving inspiration to actually begin a workout.
5. Improve Performance
This one ties in all of the above benefits of stretching before a workout. You’ll have fresh oxygen for your body, reduce risk of injury, and boost your energy while reducing fatigue; this will overall improve your performance of whatever exercise you are doing, whether it’s cardio or strength.
Stretching During Exercise
Thanks to advances in functional understanding of how the body moves, fitness experts are proposing that you should be taking stretch-breaks during your exercise session. Modern fitness trainers will tell you this, as the benefits of stretching are being taught more widespread now in any good personal training course .
Basically, when you work one portion of the body to burn out, you take some moments to stretch this area, and then move on to another set, or onto another area of the body.
6. Increase Coordination
This is particularly beneficial for those who are strength training. Stretching when the muscle is tired or at burnout is a way to re-establish the pathways of your mind to muscle, so you feel more coordinated, and can freshen up your technique to keep your movements safe for the rest of the workout.
7. Get an Energy Boost
Just as you deliver fresh oxygen and wake up your body before your workout, it’s valuable to do this mid-workout as well. You’ll stay energised, and then re-energize when you need it to get through the hard moments.
8. Better Body Awareness
This not only prevents injury, but also helps you gauge your energy and fatigue levels to assess whether you need to ramp up your routine, or to give your body a rest if performance is lagging . Taking a moment to stretch gives you time to feel into your body, notice your heart rate, where you feel fatigue or tension, and allows you to then continue in a smart way. It’s a ‘stop, stretch, assess’ situation. It’ll help you when you try to get fit.
9. Reduce Lactic Acid Build Up
Especially when your exercise is intense strength training or high intensity interval training sessions, lactic acid will most definitely be felt in the body. Stretching helps to eliminate it from the system. Fatigue and pain may come in due to lactic acid build up, which can hinder your performance the rest of the workout. Stretching relaxes the muscles and help to dissolve accumulated lactic acid.
10. Deepen Body Movement
By elongating the muscles and reducing tight areas in the connective tissue through stretching, your body will have more movement freedom. If you’re doing repetitive or strength training exercises, this constricts the muscles as you work, so when you switch to a new exercise, it’s best to recreate length to perform the movements. For example, if you’re doing lunges, then take a quad and hamstring stretch before moving on to a squat. That way, your squat will be deeper with better form.
Stretching After Exercise
Sure, it would be nice if we could just lay down and be done with the workout when we’ve finished, but research shows that those who don’t take time to stretch post-workout will pay for it later, with sore and stiff muscles and more risk for injury.
11. Immediate Muscle Repair
The improved circulation of blood that occurs through stretching allows the muscles to relax and receive this oxygen to repair straight away.
As the heart rate lowers after exercise, you give your body time to actually receive blood flow, which begins the recovery process much faster than if you just stopped without stretching.
12. Create More Flexibility
Having a more flexible body not only allows you to get into some interesting yoga shapes, but also reduces muscle tension. After a few weeks of regular post-workout stretching, you’ll already notice a difference in your flexibility.
Holding more deep, static stretches the end of your workout will give you access to more length in many areas of your body—more than what you would have reached pre or mid-exercise.
13. Protect Your Joints
Your joints are surrounded by connective tissue and have muscles attachments. When you practice moving through your range of motion around your joints (think knees, hips, and shoulders), then you’re reducing tension and stuck-ness around those areas. This reduces pressure on joints and allows them to move more freely. Post-workout stretching gives those joints some love while your body is still warm.
14. Reduce Risk of Cramping
When you eliminate lactic acid build up through stretching, you are also relaxing the muscles and letting energy, body fluids and blood to flow through without getting ‘stuck’ anywhere, which often causes cramping.
Dehydration can also be a factor in post-workout cramping, so we suggest sipping on some water while you stretch.
15. Cool Down Your Body
Improved circulation means a lower heart rate, gradually getting back to a resting rate. You bring your body back to balance at a slow pace with stretching, which offers your body and mind a sense of patience, mindfulness and relaxation after your workout.
Now you have every reason to stretch at the beginning, in the middle and right at the end of your workouts—so go ahead and get stretching. Your body will thank you!
Featured photo credit: Austin Neill via unsplash.com
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