Stretching: Before or after exercise?
Is stretching before or after exercise better for you? Physiotherapists are often
asked this question. The answer is more complicated than a simple one or the
other. Stretching can have many different purposes or goals and depending on
what you are looking to achieve, that will direct your strategies. Understanding
the different types of stretches and their effects will help determine which
stretching is most suited to your particular needs. It is good to know which
muscles are the most relevant to your sport so they can be stretched.
Before any form of physical activity dynamic stretching is often much more
appropriate and effective than static stretching. Dynamic stretches take a
muscle and joint through movement to the point of mild to moderate tension.
Given this is typically what is required of most muscles during sport or exercise,
allowing the muscles to improve their flexibility and range of movement before
they are put under the stress of exercise helps improve performance and reduce
the risk of injury. Given the nature of each sport is different certain muscles will
need targeting depending on which sport you play.
For field sports which include running and kicking: calves, hamstrings and quads
are the main targets. Stretches could include leg swings gradually increasing in
range and speed, both forwards and back, along with side to side. Perform
lunges to gradually lengthen your stance and deepen your range.
For court sports where there can be trunk rotation along with outstretched loads
on the lower leg and upper limb your dynamic warm up will be different. It should
include trunk rotation stretches (either in standing or lying), gradually increasing
your range. Add lower limb lunging including both front and side lunges, again
gradually increasing the depth. Finally, don’t exclude the upper limb including
some controlled arm stretches to the side and overhead.
All dynamic stretching should not be held for very long as you are trying to
facilitate natural movement and the elasticity of the muscles and other soft
tissues. You can hold the stretch for a few seconds if you find it helps your body
move a little easier, but most people will perform the stretches rhythmically,
sometimes timing it with their natural breathing pattern. Each stretch should be
done around 12 times with the range of movement gradually getting slightly
If you have performed a suitable warm up and finished your sport/exercise, then
your emphasis on stretching will change. After muscles have been working hard,
they will tend to tighten, this is due to the physiology of muscle fibres and when
they contract to produce force they will shorten. While as the muscle relaxes
after contracting the fibres will lengthen towards their starting position, over
time the fibres will gradually become shorter with more and more use. To help
assist with recovery you want to lengthen the muscle to its natural resting
position. As mentioned earlier muscle fibres have some elastic properties so you
will need to hold a static stretch for 20-30 seconds to avoid the muscle
rebounding to the same point as soon as you stop. You will likely need to spend a
total of 1-2 minutes on each muscle group performing a few repetitions of each
Again, make sure you think about which muscles you have been using in your
specific sport. Field sports will need stretches for calves, quadriceps and
hamstrings. Court sports will also need to include calf, quadriceps and
hamstrings along with trunk and arm/shoulder stretches. Most teams and clubs
will have an idea of what is most suited and have a protocol around warm-ups
and cool downs, but in casual and social sport you will need to ensure you are
taking care of your own stretching.
Knowing the rationale behind your stretching program will help you get the most
out of it and ensure you perform the right stretches correctly. If you are having
difficulty with tight muscles, either after an injury or are worried about
developing an injury and want to be guided on specific stretches, contact our
team at Fairfield Physiotherapy. We are experienced in designing individually
managed programs for your health and optimum performance.