Should I stretch before or after I exercise? This is a question that physical therapists get almost every day, and the reason is that the answer is somewhat confusing. In order to answer the question, it is important to know what type of exercise is going to be performed, and what the purpose of the exercise is. A 60 year old person that wants to walk for 30 minutes in order to maintain cardiovascular health is very different than a 28 year old person that is doing jump squats to improve their vertical leap.
So, now that we know the proper questions to ask, the answers become much easier. If you are going to do explosive exercises, you should not be performing long duration stretching prior to activity. Studies have found that static stretching prior to explosive activity (jumping, sprinting, burpees, powerlifting) can decrease the muscles overall performance. Without getting too technical, the reason for the decreased performance is that muscles have a certain amount of stiffness and reflex sensitivity that allow them to store energy (like a spring), if that muscle is stretched too much, the ability to store that energy and have a proper stretch response decreases (if you stretch out a spring it isn’t as powerful).
The most effect pre-workout for explosive exercises is what is called and active warmup. Activities like high kicks, leg swings, arm circles, brisk walking, mini hopping, can all warm up the muscles, and prepare them for explosive contraction. Once your workout is FINISHED, it is still important to stretch. Stretching reduces pain, muscle soreness, injury incidence, and improves overall mobility.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you are planning to do gentle exercise that may last for longer durations, it is safe to stretch your muscles to loosen up your body. It is still a good idea to start with some sort of active warm up, due to muscles increased ability to stretch when your body is warm and has good blood flow. Examples of an active warmup for lower intensity activity would be walking at a slower pace for 5-10 minutes, arm and leg circles.
Remember, when you do stretch, you should stretch the muscle to a point of discomfort, not pain. The old adage “No Pain, No Gain” does not apply to stretching…a lot of pain will just lead to a torn muscle, or a reflexive spasm.
If you are unsure of any activity or how to stretch certain muscles, your physical therapist can show you multiple safe ways to stretch any muscle, to make it safe for you.