If you’re like most people, you probably have a habit of stretching before your workout.
And it seems like no big deal to do a little pre-workout stretching, right? After all, it’s important to maintain a general level of flexibility, so why not add it in before a workout?
Many of us probably have this stretching routine as a leftover habit from our days playing team sports. In those days, it went without question that before any practice or game, our coach or team member would lead a warm up that would inevitably include a little jogging—and a lot of static stretching.
Static stretching means that you’re stretching the muscles while your body is at rest, as in a typical hamstring, calf, or shoulder stretch. This type of stretching is a great way to stay mobile and flexible.
Yet there’s more and more evidence that static stretching before a workout not only doesn’t offer any actual benefits, it can actually do more harm than good.
Here’s why you shouldn’t stretch before your workout:
It Can Reduce Performance
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a growing body of research has shown that pre-workout and pre-event static stretching “may actually have a negative effect on force production, power performance, strength endurance, reaction time, and running speed.”
Stretching before a workout or an event such as a race, in fact, has been shown to reduce performance up to 3%.
This 3% performance decrease has been shown to last for up to an hour post-static stretching, so if you’re looking to get in an especially awesome workout that day, you should avoid stretching for at least an hour before you work out.
It Can Lead to Injuries
Not only does stretching before a workout not have any added benefit in actually preventing injuries, it can actually make it more likely that you’ll get injured.
This is because when you stretch, it actually results in muscle damage by creating micro tears in the muscle. This is normal—just like when you work out, your muscles become slightly damaged via the process of overloading them in order to grow back bigger and stronger, or in the case of stretching, more flexible.
Yet when you stretch too much before a workout with non-warmed up muscles, you’re making it more likely that not only will your muscles endure damage during the workout, but also during the stretching, making it more likely—rather than less—that you’ll end up getting injured that day.
Let’s be totally clear here: I’m not saying you shouldn’t stretch at all. Stretching is a super important part of maintaining a strong, healthy body, and these are some stretches I recommend doing on a regular basis.
Yet instead of stretching before your workout, try adding some static stretching in after your workout is over.
That way, it won’t matter that you’re temporarily decreasing your performance since you already crushed your workout for the day. You can also break it up and stretch at another time of day—for example, do your workout in the morning and do some static stretching when you’re watching your favorite show at night (my personal preference).
What to Do Instead
Just because you should avoid doing static stretches before your workout doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing any sort of stretching at all. Dynamic stretching is a form of active stretching that will help to improve your range of motion and is an awesome way to get your muscles warmed up before a workout.
Here are a few examples of dynamic stretches you can do before you work out:
Front to Back Leg Swings: Stand up straight holding onto something if you don’t totally trust your balance. Lift one leg off of the floor, then kick forward until you feel a good stretch. Swing backward, then forward again, slowly increasing your range of motion. Make sure to work both legs.
Side to Side Leg Swings: Stand up straight holding onto something if needed. Lift one leg off of the floor, then kick to the side, away from your standing leg. Swing back towards your standing leg, then to the side again, slowly increasing your range of motion. Make sure to work both legs.
Arm Circles: Stand up straight with your arms stretched out to the sides. Slowly circle your arms forward in small and large circles, then reverse directions.
Lunge With a Twist: Step forward into a lunge as you drop your hips. Slowly twist towards the side you are lunging for a more intense hip flexor stretch.
Hip Stretch With a Twist: Start in a push up position and bring your right foot up to your right hand while keeping your hips down and lower back flat. Twist to your left while extending your left arm and reaching toward the sky. Return to the starting pushup position and repeat on the other side.
You can see a few of these dynamic stretches incorporated in this quick sub-3 minute warm up.
Work hard, and stay injury-free!