When it comes to working out, we’re not all strongmen like Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (aka The Mountain). In fact, many of us could go our entire lives and still have no clue how a lat pull-down differs from an incline bench. Which is to say, there’s no shame in not knowing your way around a gym, or how to start the process of getting in shape. Plus, that’s what we’re here for — to make sure that when you are in the gym, you at least never have to sweat the small stuff.
I’m in my late 30s, I’m overweight, and not what anyone would call “limber.” I’ve been getting back in the gym, but I’m worried in my current state I might hurt myself unless I get a good stretch in. Which is more effective: Stretching before, or after my workouts?
For many, many years, the conventional wisdom suggested that stretching before working out was the best way to prevent injury. Going even further than that, the type of stretching most commonly associated with this school of thought was called “static stretching,” i.e., the kind of stretch where you hold a position for a set length of time, like when you reach down to touch your toes.
These days, however, the thinking on stretching has evolved to suggest that perhaps stretching before a workout isn’t the preventative boon the sports medicine community once thought it was. In fact, new research suggests that pre-workout stretches have little to no effect on the body’s ability to prevent injury. In addition, studies have been conducted that show that static stretching in particular may also cause a reduction in performance, weaken the muscle fibers and reduce overall body strength. As such, the best stretching you can do to increase power, speed, flexibility and prevent injury is more regular stretching outside of the gym — like at home, on an off day.
Now, it’s important to take all of this with a grain of salt, because there are many in the exercise and sports communities who swear by pre-workout stretching. But even so, most would agree that static stretching is over and done with, and that dynamic stretching (i.e., repetitive movement within your full range of motion) and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (i.e., holding, extending and contracting a muscle group repeatedly) are the pre-workout and maintenance stretching du jour.
Regardless, far more universally agreed upon is that the best thing you can do (even in lieu of stretching entirely) to prevent injury prior to working out is getting in a proper warm-up, either with some light sets on the free weights, or 10 minutes on a cardio machine, both of which can activate the muscles without over-stretching them, making them more pliable.
As for stretching after a workout? Yeah, definitely do it. Besides preventing tightness, stretching after working out can improve circulation, and reduce the amount of lactic acid in your muscles that cause soreness.
Of course, IMHO, nothing beats a hot sauna followed by a chilly dip in a cold bath when it comes to preventing post-workout soreness. But what do I know?