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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.  


Dynamic Stretching

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 further.  


Static Stretching

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 stretch. 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.