Should I stretch before or after I exercise?1 Should I even bother to stretch at all? These are the questions that every busy adult asks whenever he or she is planning to begin an exercise program. The correct answer to the first question is "do whatever is right for you." Some people need to lengthen their major muscle groups, such as the quadriceps (front of the thigh), hamstrings (back of the thigh), and calves, before they run, walk, swim, and/or lift weights for exercise. For others, it's best to stretch at the end of a workout, re-lengthening the major muscle groups so they'll be ready to help you move through the rest of your day.
The answer to the second question is "yes, stretching is important for everybody and is often the missing link in trying to understand why you injured yourself when you were exercising." Stretching helps you either warm up or cool down, whichever is needed for you to get the most out of your exercise. Not stretching in the way that you need puts you on the fast track to sustaining an exercise-related injury. As always, prevention is the best policy.
A dynamic warm-up is a fun and entertaining supplement or replacement, at times, to stretching if you're a stretch-first person.2,3 In a dynamic warm-up, you take important joints such as your hips, shoulders, and lower back through complete ranges of motion, using large muscle groups for support. Dynamic warm-up activities are similar to core strengthening exercises and have unique names such as scorpion, hip crossover, drop lunge, and quad circles. You can mix-and-match a variety of dynamic warm-up activities on different workout days, creating ongoing interest that helps you maintain your exercise routine.
A dynamic cool-down can serve as a similar supplement or replacement to stretching, at times, if you're a stretch-after person. If you've been walking or running, rather than simply completing your walk or run, spend an additional few minutes walking or running with shorter strides and/or at a slower pace. Walking backward at a slow pace is another method for achieving a dynamic cool-down. If you've been lifting weights, a series of deep-knee lunges will stretch your lower back and hips. A yoga-style downward dog will lengthen your spine, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Moving your arms through big circles, both clockwise and counterclockwise, will open up your shoulder girdles and lengthen the muscles of your rotator cuffs.
Regardless of the method you choose, stretching is an important part of your regular exercise activities. The extra few minutes spent either warming up or cooling down will help you maintain your exercise program achieve long-term health and well-being.
1McHugh MP, Cosgrave CH: To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scand J Med Sci Sports 20(2):169-181, 2010