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The Princeton Longevity Center Medical News

You’re Getting Warmer: The Proper Way to Warm-up and Stretch with Exercise
By: Chris Volgraf, CSCS--Senior Exercise Physiologist

Since I entered the field of Exercise Science, the opinions on stretching have changed numerous times.  Do you stretch prior to exercise, after or both?  Well it turns out the question is not whether to stretch prior to or after exercise, but which type of stretching are you performing, before and after exercise?  Static stretching (the traditional 30 second hold variety) has long been the staple found in numerous exercise routines.  Some perform their static stretches prior to exercise, often following an aerobic warm-up. Very few have questioned this practice and are still performing the static variety as they have for years.  Recent research shows that our style of stretching and our timing must change. 

Dynamic stretching - rhythmic, smooth, continuous movements that challenge your range of motion, increase your heart and respiratory rates and excite neuromuscular system - has been shown to better prepare an exerciser for their workouts. Stretching muscles while moving increases power, flexibility and range of motion. Muscles in motion don’t experience that insidious inhibitory response. They instead get excited and primed for the more intense activity to come. Static stretching on the other hand should be performed following a workout to elongate the muscles post exercise, reduce soreness and speed recovery.
Static stretching prior to an activity may even have adverse effects, such as calming the exerciser, decreasing blood flow or reducing overall strength output. “There is a neuromuscular inhibitory response to static stretching,” says Malachy McHugh, Director of Research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital. The straining muscle becomes less responsive and stays weakened for up to 30 minutes after stretching, which is not how an athlete wants to begin a workout. “You may feel as if you’re able to stretch farther after holding a stretch for 30 seconds,” McHugh says, “so you think you’ve increased that muscle’s readiness.” But typically you’ve increased only your mental tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch. The muscle is actually weaker.

A study tested athletes’ strength production during a leg curl following static or dynamic stretching to discover if significant differences occurred in strength output. Results showed that static stretching compared to dynamic stretching produced a significant reduction in hamstring strength for a time period lasting up to one hour post-stretching. Significantly higher muscle temperature resulted in a more effective static stretch for increasing flexibility. This study supports the use of dynamic flexibility prior to a competition or training session and suggests that static stretching should be used as a post-workout cool down.
THE RIGHT WARM-UP should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Duane Knudson, Professor of Kinesiology at California State, says.  A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better.

Even golfers, notoriously nonchalant about warming up (a recent survey of 304 recreational golfers found that two-thirds seldom or never bother), would benefit from exerting themselves a bit before teeing off. In one 2004 study, golfers who did dynamic warm- up exercises and practice swings increased their club-head speed and were projected to have dropped their handicaps by seven strokes over seven weeks. New research out of Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania, suggests that those who warm up are nine times less likely to be injured.

In summation, the proper way to warm-up (and stretch) prior to exercise or performance is with a few minutes of low intensity aerobic exercise (walking or jogging), with dynamic warm-ups (20-45 seconds of each warm-up) such as walking lunges, body weight squats, high knee hugs, lateral lunge walks, straight leg marching, quad walks and arm circles. Static stretching can be simply moved to end of the workout…don’t trash it altogether!

For more information on warming up and the varied forms of flexibility training, (add whatever you would like here)

  • Faigenbaum, A, Bellucci, M, Bernieri, A, Bakker, B, Hoorens, K. (2005). Acute Effects of Different Warm-Up Protocols on Fitness Performance in Children. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19 (2): 376-381.
  • Reynolds, Gretchen (October 2008).  Phys Ed-Stretching: The Truth.  New York Times-Play Magazine.

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