THE REGIMEN: When Is the Best Time to Stretch?

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The debate over when to stretch has been ongoing for some time now: Should you loosen up before a workout, training session, or game, or after? Better yet, why stretch at all? Does it really make a difference?

The answer is yes. Stretching is important for exercisers and athletes alike because it helps decrease post workout soreness, reduces the risk of injury, and loosens up the joints by allowing them to move through their full range of motion. “As we age, it is important to maintain flexibility as our muscles naturally begin to become shorter and lose elasticity,” says John Gallucci Jr., DPT, founder of JAG Physical Therapy and current medical coordinator for Major League Soccer. “Maintaining flexibility decreases forces on joints, thus decreasing risk of aches and pains, so stretching early in life is important.”

For athletes, stretching is indispensable because fewer injuries can mean a longer career. Players are constantly engaging in explosive, dynamic movements in practice and games, so it’s necessary that their muscles are flexible and at the optimum length to endure these tasks, explains Gallucci.

In terms of timing, Gallucci suggests stretching both before and after physical activity. “Stretching prior to a workout or athletic event promotes blood flow and circulation to the muscles and increases the body temperature, therefore ‘warming up’ the muscles,” he says. When your muscles are warm from 10 minutes of dynamic or ballistic stretching, which consists of active movements that mimic those you’ll be performing in your sport or routine, they’re less stiff and can work more efficiently.

Active dynamic warm ups are an excellent way to warm up the muscles,” adds Dr. Lynn Berman, founder of Spring Forward Physical Therapy in New York. “This means doing things like jumping jacks, high knees, lunges while twisting the upper body to one side, leg swings, and butt kicks while running in place.”

After a workout, stretching is all about recovery. “Post workout, it is important to statically stretch, hitting every muscle you used during activity,” explains Gallucci. “This maintains the flexibility in the muscles and decreases the amount of shortening and tightening that occurs after activity—in turn, limiting the amount of soreness you feel.”

“Stretches should never be bounced on at end range,” adds Berman. “I recommend stretching immediately after working out and then again an hour later when lactic acid is setting in.” Additionally, a study published in The Journal of Sport Rehabilitation found that foam rolling before static stretching can be beneficial, too.

Choosing which stretches to do depends a lot on the activity you’ll be doing. Athletes should be stretching the muscles they use the most for their sports, while general gym go-ers are better off focusing on the big core muscle groups.  Here are five post-workout stretches to get you started on the path to nimbleness, flexibility, and pain-free activity.

HamstringHamstring Stretch:

Lie on your back with band in hand, one leg bent with foot on the floor, the other leg raised. Wrap band around ball of raised foot. Pulling both ends of band with either hand, pull foot as close to your chest as possible. Hold for 20-30 seconds then switch legs.

Hip

Hip Flexor Stretch:

Start by kneeling on the floor, then place one leg in front of you. Bend knee 90 degrees and plant foot on the floor in front of you. Keeping legs still, push back leg hip forward to feel stretch in that hip. Hold for 20-30 seconds then switch legs.

KneeSingle Knee To Chest Stretch:

Lie on back, one leg bent with foot on the floor. Grab the other leg behind knee with both hands and pull knee into chest. Hold for 20-30 seconds then switch legs.

QuadQuad Stretch:

Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Take one leg, bend it behind you and grab ankle with same side hand. Keeping thighs parallel, pull ankle as close to butt as possible. Hold for 20-30 seconds then switch legs. If you have trouble balancing, hold onto a chair or couch with your free hand.

Calf

Calf Stretch:

Stand in front of a table or wall, legs split, one in front with one knee slightly bent, the other behind fully extended. Lean slightly forward and push against table or wall to keep both heels on ground, feeling a stretch in the back of your calf. Hold for 20-30 seconds then switch legs.


All illustrations: Greg Matesich 
Important exercise note: Consult with your doctor before beginning any exercise program.