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To stretch or not to stretch?

The how, when and why of stretching
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Who'd have thought that something as simple as a stretch could be quite so controversial?

It comes naturally to us in day-to-day life but when it comes to stretching and exercise different gym instructors, fitness experts and sports coaches have conflicting views.

So do we need to stretch at all?

Having a stretch when we wake up or have been sitting down for ages feels good.

"Stretching, in its most basic form, is an instinctive activity," according to Constantinos Yiallouros, the UK personal training specialist at Virgin Active Health Clubs.

"People often stretch after sleep or after long periods of inactivity."

Regular flexibility exercises can help maintain our range of movement as we get older.

Stretching exercises are also recommended to improve posture and to help with chronic back pain.

Stretching before exercise?

So stretching is good for us but when should we do it? It used to be the case that athletes often stretched as a matter of course before and after exercise. Touching their toes and stretching those quads out before a race or event.

One study suggests that stretching before running actually makes your performance worse.

Although some people are still wedded to the idea of stretching pre and post exercise this research does seem to suggest that classic static stretching before exercise may be pointless.

There is no substantial evidence that stretching before exercise lowers risk of injury, decreases muscle soreness after exercise, or improves your performance. Although some studies show that stretching before exercise produces all of these benefits, there are just as many - or perhaps more - that say otherwise.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy says that studies have shown that performing static stretches before exercise may not be as good for you as originally thought.

Professional advisor to the Society Priya Dasoju says: "The claim is that this type of stretch can weaken the muscle and make it more prone to injury during the ensuing activity. The muscle has a weaker response and generates less force; this effect can last up to 30 minutes."

She recommends dynamic stretching before exercise, incorporating activities like slow-jogging, side-stepping and jump lunges instead of the traditional stretches like pulling your arm across your chest and touching your toes.

The main difference is that you are stretching the muscles through movement, rather than simply extending them and holding that position.

If you prefer to have a stretch before exercise make sure you have warmed up first.

"Stretching is more effective if the muscles are already warmed up. If you warm up first, your stretching exercises will be more effective and efficient, you will make greater gains than if you are stretching cold, and you will be less likely to injure yourself," says Constanios.

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