Stretching is something we remember doing as far back as early childhood, whether it was done in a PE class or on an intramural sports team. You remember your coach leading the team in an intricate stretching routine prior to every practice scrimmage or Saturday game. The warm up would continue with some light cardio moves such as a jog around the field or some jumping jacks. The years went by, and soon you were responsible for your own fitness practices, without the presence of a leader. Before engaging in any activity, you still hear your coach telling you to stretch, and you most likely obey since that’s what you were programmed to do at a young age. You never imagined your trustworthy coach would lead you astray. But, did Coach’s warm up regimen really heat up your best performance abilities and fire up your muscles? To say that your coach’s pre-game theory was completely accurate…well, that would be a stretch!
I’m not saying Coach didn’t have the right intention; he was definitely on the right track. However, he should have taken you directly to this track (running track that is) and forgone the stretching portion of his designed warm up. Don’t look so shocked, and before you say it, YES stretching is important. However, it is only useful and necessary when performed after a work out or activity. Let me ask you this; what is the purpose of a warm up? Simple right, to warm up our body and prepare our muscles for the action to come. Well, earth to Coach, stretching does not warm up our muscles! And ironically, stretching cold muscles can cause rather than prevent an injury. When our muscles are cold, or in their natural state, they are rigid. This inflexibility makes them sensitive to any strains or changes in length, and therefore susceptible to over-extension. However, once our body temperature is up and blood flows to our muscles, they are ready to reap the benefits of a relaxing, cool down stretch. Think of a raw piece of spaghetti; if you were to bend it, it would snap in half. But, one you “warm it up,” it will bend any way desired.
Okay, enough critiquing Coach’s flaws; let’s focus on what he did right, the second part of his warm up routine. A light pre-work out plan is extremely advantageous and enhances performance power by loosening muscles and increasing our range of motion. These plans should be focused around dynamic moves that encourage muscle activity and use speed and momentum to form a stretch. (as opposed to a static stretch that requires a pose to be held for 20-30 seconds) Remember that day you hit a home run? You can contribute that triumph to the light cardio portion of coach’s warm up.
Back to present time…how does this affect the exercises we do as an adult? If you’re engaging in intense plans such as heavy weight lifting, stretching before your regimen can actually be counterproductive. Since a cold muscle does not like a static stretch, it will rebel against the movement, becoming weak and unresponsive. It can remain in this state of depression for up to 30 minutes, and a sad muscle does not perform at its highest potential. Therefore, excite and stimulate your muscles through a dynamic warm up using light resistance. And then after fitness session is complete…that’s right…stretch! Basically, think of your work out as a three course meal: the warm up is the appetizer, the activity is the main meal, and stretching is dessert. You go through the entire feast waiting to get to that sweet conclusion. Just like dessert captivates our palates, stretching offers a likewise satisfaction to our senses, providing treats like increased mobility and coordination and decreased muscle tension and soreness. And it feels great! However, it can not be enjoyed until the main course has been served. So next time you hear Coach telling you to stretch before exercising, ignore him!