Stretching is an important component of every exercise program. While many people know they are supposed to stretch after exercise, some are surprised to learn that stretching before exercise is also important. The stretching routine you perform will be largely dependent on the type of exercise you are about to do, but no matter what type you choose, stretching can prepare your body for vigorous exercise while helping prevent injury.
Stretches prior to exercise should be dynamic movements; meaning, the stretches aren't held static. The stretches should also introduce the body to the movements you're about to do. A good example is stretching prior to running:
- Good options: Walking prepares your body for the vigors of running, especially if you focus on bringing the knees up high while walking. Alternating hamstring curls mimic the movement of running and will warm up your legs for running.
- Bad option: Going into static calf, shin, or quad stretches while your body is "cold" in preparation of running may lead to injury since you are forcing shortened muscles into stretches.
Dynamic stretching involves movement; it's not a stretch-and-hold that most people think of when they imagine stretching. Dynamic stretching warms up the muscles to prepare them for activity, enhancing performance and reducing the possibility of injury. This is the type of stretching exercisers should do prior to working out.
The dynamic stretching done before exercise should target the activity you are about to do. Don't fall into the habit of always stretching the same way regardless of activity; stretching your chest, biceps, and triceps prior to a superset of lower body exercises won't help prevent injury because those muscles aren't recruited in your workout. To decide what to stretch, consider which muscles your workout will use. For example, if your workout will consist mainly of cardio kickboxing, do some easy, moving kicks to the front, side, and back to warm up your legs along with some easy, moving jabs.
Sample Stretches by Exercise
How you stretch prior to exercising is dictated by the anticipated workout. Don't skip stretching beforehand and afterward if you want the best results. The goal is to move blood into the muscles so they're ready to work. Below are examples for some stretches for common workouts.
Stretching Before Cycling
Cycling - both indoors or outdoors - challenges the muscles of your lower body significantly. Before getting on the bike, stretch your muscles with dynamic movements including:
- Hamstring curls
- Leg swings forward and laterally
- High knees
- Lateral lunges
- Shoulder rolls will help compel the shoulders back during your ride
Stretching Before Strength Training
Which muscles you stretch dynamically before strength training depends on which muscles your workout will target. If you plan to lift weights, doing the movements first without weights will help stretch the muscles. For example, a biceps curl without weights is a good dynamic stretch in preparation of doing weighted biceps curls. Non-weighted squats will help prepare your muscles for weighted squats. Lifting weights without stretching beforehand can lead to muscle strain or worse injuries.
Stretching Before Swimming
To prepare your body for a vigorous swim, start outside of the water with arm circles similar to your stroke and leg kicks forward and back. When you get into the water, begin by swimming leisurely for a lap before putting full effort into your swim. Your warmed-up muscles will be ready for explosive movement and vigorous swimming much better than if you had just hopped in the pool and started swimming at top speed without any stretching.
Tips for Stretching Before Exercise
While stretching before exercise is essential, it's never a good idea to stretch cold muscles. Instead, warm up your muscles with about five minutes of mild activity, focusing on the activity you're about to do. When you stretch, keep the following in mind:
- Save static stretches for post-workout - hold these for 20-30 seconds each.
- Don't bounce (ballistic stretches). Instead, move fluidly into stretching positions. Bouncing can cause injury and won't improve flexibility. That's because bouncing actually triggers muscle contraction (shortening) instead of lengthening, which is the goal with stretching.
- Don't push past a point of discomfort, or you risk injury. It's okay to feel a stretch, but if it hurts, stop.
- Exhale into stretches. This triggers a relaxation response that allows you to more completely lengthen a muscle.
- Be sure to stretch each muscle group you are about to engage.
- Avoid locking any of your joints (a form of hyperextension) when you stretch. Joint locking during any form of exercise puts too much stress on the joint you lock, and can lead to soft tissue and/or joint injury.
- Once you have stretched, engage in exercise that gradually increases in intensity. This helps your muscles to continue to warm up to full capacity. Engaging in high-intensity activity too quickly can cause injury.
While stretching adds a little time to your workout, it's an important part of staying fit. Stretching not only prevents injury, but it increases your flexibility, which makes it much easier to comfortably perform the activities of daily living.