Stretching improves flexibility and makes up an important part of an exercise routine. However, not all people stretch before exercise, so you may be wondering if stretching is important. Not all types of stretching are equal, so the type of stretches as well as the timing makes a difference in flexibility and exercise. If your current stretching routine doesn't appear to improve overall flexibility, then you may want to consider making some changes.
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Traditional Stretching Modifications
Traditional stretches such as bending over to touch your toes or stretching out your legs on a fence may be part of your pre-exercise routine, but this type of stretching, also known as static stretching, increases your risk of injury and does not promote flexibility. The American Council on Exercise warns against stretching cold muscles, promoting warm-up activities before stretching. Also, when performing a static stretch, bouncing or pushing the stretch to the point of discomfort are less effective for improving flexibility and increase your risk of injury.
Active Stretching for Flexibility
A comparison of different types of stretching demonstrates that active stretching improves flexibility. Active, otherwise known as dynamic stretching, involves moving parts of your body, gradually increasing the reach of muscles and the speed of movement. In a 2010 study published in the "Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine," hamstring flexibility was tested using static or active stretches. After a four-week period, the group that performed active stretching gained greater flexibility in their hamstrings, while the static group saw either no or minimal gains in flexibility. Following both groups throughout the study, researchers noticed that the active stretching group continued to increase their flexibility to a greater extent than the static stretching group.
Active stretching does not require a complicated routine, but promotes benefits when your routine uses the same muscle groups as your exercise. Increasing your circulation and flexibility not only improves flexibility, but also decreases your risk of injury. For example, a runner may want to start off with a light jog or brisk walk before breaking out into a run, warming up the muscle groups and preparing them for more strenuous activity. Low-impact activities such as walking for runners, light kicking for football players, or a few serves for tennis players increase the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, warming up body temperature and allowing you to reach your full range of motion in a controlled way.
Muscle Soreness and Tension
While stretching is important for flexibility, one promoted benefit of pre-exercise stretching is a reduction in soreness. However, muscle stretching, either before or after exercise does not produce any noticeable reduction in muscle soreness. A 2011 Cochrane Database Systematic Review looked at 12 studies and determined that stretching had a minimal effect on post-exercise soreness. Although multiple benefits from stretching exist, delaying or reducing muscle soreness does not appear to be a benefit. Muscle tightness, a related area, does improve from both active and static stretching. The American Council on Exercise recommends active stretching before a workout and static stretching after exercise to increase muscle flexibility and reduce tension.