Most people enjoy stretching as a warm-up or cooldown after exercise in hopes of preventing injuries — but is it really beneficial? Research is ever-changing and shows there's much to contest about exactly how to stretch and when to stretch to get the most benefits.
"This may come as a surprise, but literature strongly debates the importance of stretching," says Amy Clark PT, DPT, a certified orthopedic manual physical therapist at SporTherapy. "Overall, stretching does help to maintain or increase the range of motion needed for exercise."
Video of the Day
This improved range of motion may help prevent injury because it allows you to move with ease when doing sports, such as tennis or golf, or even everyday activities like vacuuming or yard work. Maintaining a normal range of motion in all your joints is also important in preventing muscle imbalances in other areas of your body.
For example, if your knee is stiff and has limited motion, then you'll walk with a limp — which can then cause pain and eventually injuries in your hip and back.
Stretching also can improve cardiovascular health. A June 2020 study in The Journal of Physiology found that leg stretches actually help improve blood flow and may even prevent strokes.
Now that you know why stretching is so important, what is the best way to stretch for maximum benefits? This is where the debate comes in. Should you stretch before or after exercise? Is a static stretch or dynamic stretch more beneficial? Here's what the most recent research says.
Keep in mind that more research needs to be done, as many of the studies are small and done on athletes or a younger population.
Static vs. Dynamic Stretching
Static stretching is what most people think of when they think of stretching. This is when you hold a stretch for a sustained period of time, such as stretching your hamstring by bending over and touching your toes and holding it.
This kind of stretch was highly recommended before activity or exercise until 2015 — when a December 2015 review in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that even though static stretching improved range of motion, it also appeared to reduce sports performance, including strength, power and speed by 3 to 5 percent.
A small June 2018 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise later clarified the length of time you should hold your stretch from the 2015 study. Researchers found that holding stretches for a minute or longer was too long. Instead, holding a stretch for 30 seconds per muscle yields better results.
When static — or dynamic — stretching is brief and done after a low-intensity warm-up, such as brisk walking or a stationary bike, it won't affect your sports performance.
Later research found that doing dynamic stretches, also called active stretches, before a sport or exercise will improve your performance over static stretching.
Case in point: A small March 2020 study in the Journal of Human Kinetics and a small September 2021 study in Biology of Sport both found that doing dynamic stretches after a short low-intensity warm-up improved sprint speed and explosive strength better than static stretching.
To get the maximum benefits of stretching, do a low-intensity warm-up and then dynamic stretching before exercise to improve performance and flexibility. Do static stretching after exercise (holding each stretch for 30 seconds) to improve range of motion.
Stretching Before vs. After Exercise
As mentioned above, stretching can improve your range of motion and blood flow, as well as help prevent injury — with dynamic stretching having the added boost of improving performance.
"Dynamic stretching prior to exercise may prevent injury by taking the body through the necessary range of motion necessary for exercise — and it can be a mental aide prior to exercise," Clark says.
However, "static stretching is best done after exercising when the muscles are warm and there is good blood flow to the area. Muscles respond well to sustained holds," she says.
According to a small 2018 March study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, participants who performed a static stretch after exercise reported reduced muscle soreness, but there was no actual change in muscle inflammation.
Static stretching improves range of motion and flexibility, according to a May 2018 review in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation. Having a normal range of motion helps your muscles and your joints perform at their optimum level, which can translate into improved performance.
Making time for static stretching after exercise also helps slow down your heart rate and triggers a parasympathetic response to help you relax and feel more calm, according to a small January 2014 study in the American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.
In addition, a small July 2020 study in the Journal of Physiology found that static leg stretches help decrease arterial stiffness which improves blood flow, and cardiovascular health, which can decrease your risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Static stretching after exercise as a cooldown may not help with muscle soreness, but has other benefits including improving flexibility and performance, decreasing heart rate, promoting relaxation, and even improving heart health.
3 Other Ways to Prevent Injury Pre- and Post-Workout
In addition to stretching, there are other ways to help your muscles get primed for exercise, reduce post-exercise soreness and recover well to get the maximum benefits.
1. Cold Water Immersion
Soaking in a tub of cold water (also called plunge baths or cryotherapy) after exercise for up to 10 minutes constricts blood vessels, which reduces inflammation and muscle soreness.
A small January 2021 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found cold-water immersion to be more beneficial in post-workout recovery than static stretching in jiu-jitsu fighters.
On the flip side, cold water therapy has been found to hinder muscle fiber growth, which can decrease gains in mass and strength, according to a July 2015 study in The Journal of Physiology.
Use cold water immersion sparingly or only when you are dealing with inflammation or pain. Stretching is a better pre- and post-workout routine that has fewer negative side effects.
2. Infrared Sauna
Not a fan of being cold? Try an infrared sauna. A small July 2015 study in Springerplus found that 30-minute sauna sessions after exercise reduced muscle soreness and helped muscles recover more quickly, as well as promoted relaxation.
A small September 2015 in the Journal of Athletic Enhancement found that it helped promote muscle healing in athletes and helps those with chronic pain.
The infrared sauna isn't for everyone, however. Those with cardiovascular issues or low blood pressure should talk to a doctor first. You should also make sure you drink plenty of water.
3. Foam Rolling
For those who have chronic pain or inflammation, cold water immersion or the infrared sauna may be a good option to help recover after exercise, however, activities like stretching, sleep and foam rolling or massage are all proven methods to help you recover with minimal side effects.
- The Journal of Physiology: "Stretching-based Vascular Rehabilitation? It's Not a Stretch"
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: "No Effect of Muscle Stretching within a Full, Dynamic Warm-up on Athletic Performance"
- Journal of Human Kinetics: "Acute Effects of a Static Vs. a Dynamic Stretching Warm-up on Repeated-Sprint Performance in Female Handball Players"
- Biology of Sport: "Acute Effect of a Static- and Dynamic-Based Stretching Warm-up on Standing Long Jump Performance in Primary Schoolchildren:
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: "The Effects of Different Passive Static Stretching Intensities on Recovery From Unaccustomed Eccentric Exercise – a Randomized Controlled Trial"
- Journal of Sport Rehabilitation: "The Effectiveness of PNF Versus Static Stretching on Increasing Hip-Flexion Range of Motion"
- American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: "Acute Changes in Autonomic Nerve Activity during Passive Static Stretching"
- Journal of Physiology: "Evidence for Improved Systemic and Local Vascular Function After Long-Term Passive Static Stretching Training of the Musculoskeletal System"
- Journal of Athletic Enhancement: "Effects of Far Infrared Heat on Recovery in Power Athletes"
- The Journal of Physiology: "Post-Exercise Cold Water Immersion Attenuates Acute Anabolic Signalling and Long-Term Adaptations in Muscle to Strength Training"