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There is no definitive evidence to suggest stretching prevents injuries. But UW Health Fitness Center exercise specialist Jude Sullivan remains an advocate of stretching as a way to allow the body to become accustomed to movement prior to exercise, and to help cool down afterward.
But what type of stretching should you do? Static stretching is probably the most familiar and time-honored type of stretching. This involves stretching a muscle to near its furthest point and then holding that position for at least 15 or 20 seconds.
The emphasis is often to focus on a single muscle group with each stretch. Think of sitting and reaching for your toes to loosen the back of your thigh or lying on your stomach and pulling your foot to your butt to stretch the front of your thigh.
An alternative approach to stretching that's grown increasingly popular in recent years is dynamic stretching. This method uses gentle and controlled movements of multiple muscle groups to gradually increase your range-of-motion with each successive repetition. For example, when doing arm circles, the arms are held in a straight position and the circumference of the range-of-motion in the shoulders gradually expands with each circle.
"Basically, the difference is, with one, the body isn't moving," says Sullivan, "and with the other, the body is moving."
The stretching technique you choose, says Sullivan, depends on your activity level, the cues your body gives you, and your desired outcome. First and foremost, listen to your body, and stretch accordingly.
"We're advocates of mobility training of any kind," Sullivan says. "But it should be based primarily on what feels right."
Stretch before you exercise
Sullivan says both static and dynamic stretching can help you prepare for exercise, but it's best to assess your workout goals before settling on a stretching routine. Dynamic stretching may be a perfect complement to a vigorous workout.
"If you know it's going to be high-intensity, you may want to consider doing some dynamic movements to prepare you, mentally and physically," Sullivan says. "Dynamic stretches will stimulate reflexes in your tendons and muscles, and can also help your body recognize, through movement, its position in space, rather than relying purely on visual cues."
Prior to exercise, static stretching can be effective when paired with light activity that gets the heart pumping. Sullivan recommends light biking or walking at a quick pace before static stretching, "to get the blood moving and to warm the muscles."
Stretch after you exercise
"Generally speaking, stretching of any kind at the end of workout helps with the cool-down process," Sullivan says. "It helps the body re-integrate into a resting state."
Static stretching generally feels better after exercise, because your muscles are warm. Sullivan compares cold muscles to rubber bands kept overnight in the refrigerator. They're taut when you first take them out but grow more elastic as they warm. It's the same thing with warm muscles.
"You can feel the difference," Sullivan says.
Dynamic stretching after your workout can noticeably increase your range-of-motion. Try doing a set of the aforementioned arm circles before and after your next workout. You'll probably find that the circles are wider after the workout.
Whichever stretching method you choose, says Sullivan, the most important thing to keep in mind is to not overdo it, and be willing to vary your routine if that's what your body is telling you to do.
"With stretching, while you will likely have a 'lengthening sensation' within the muscle, it is important to avoid an overwhelming feeling of discomfort," Sullivan says. "It is equally important to trust your instincts about your body and recognize that the same stretching routine can feel a lot different from one day to the next."
Examples of static stretching
Shoulder stretch: Hold your left arm straight in front at shoulder level. Move your hand to the right while reaching under your arm with your right hand and securing your left shoulder. Pull the shoulder to the right to follow the momentum of your left hand. Repeat with the opposite arm.
Side bends: Stand with your arms raised straight over your head. Bend to the right, keeping your arms straight, and then repeat to the left.
Hamstring stretch: Sit on the ground with one leg straight out and the other bent so the bottom of your foot touches the opposite knee. Reach toward the foot of the leg that is held straight. Repeat with the opposite leg.
Examples of dynamic stretching
Arm circles: Let your arms drape to your sides and rotate them in circles, either forward or backward, gradually lengthening the circle.
Leg swings: Face a wall, using it for support as you stand on one leg. Gently swing the opposite leg side-to-side to a gradually increasing height.
Lunge with a twist: Standing, take a step forward with your right foot and reach your left hand across your body toward the ground. Return to starting position and do the same with the other side.