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Health and Fitness Column: Best Time to Stretch

When is the best time to stretch?

Many of us were told growing up that the best time to stretch is before we exercise.  I mean, duh… we don’t want to pull a muscle, right?!  Not exactly.

Think of a muscle as if it were a piece of taffy.  When we exercise, our blood flow increases to our muscles and they create heat, hence the phrase “to warm-up.”  If you warm up the piece of taffy, it will most likely stretch easier and farther because it’s more pliable.  If you take the taffy directly out of the freezer and try to stretch it, let’s just say you will be there a while.  Ok, I know that isn’t the best analogy since our muscles are not taffy and we do not live in the freezer, but hopefully you can see my point.

So, when is the best time to stretch then?  If you are just trying to avoid pulling a muscle before an activity, the best time to stretch is after you gently warm-up the muscle.  For example, you should go for a light jog, jump rope or do some jumping jacks before stretching your legs.

If your goal is to increase your flexibility, the best time to stretch is after you warm-up AND after you exercise.  However, keep in mind that significantly increasing flexibility can be difficult unless you stretch often.  Gaining significant flexibility may mean you need to stretch after a long walk to class, and then stretch after the long walk back, and then stretch again after you walk up to Founders, and then again when you get home in the evening.  I don’t know about you, but the college students I know don’t always have time for that!  So if that is the case, I suggest just focusing on maintaining your flexibility and avoiding injury by stretching after a warm-up and after you exercise.

What are the different types of stretches and how long should they be held?

A static stretch is slow and constant, with the end position held for 30 seconds or more.  The longer a stretch is held, the more effective and permanent it will be.  Some examples of static stretches are in the pictures below.  A ballistic stretch involves a bouncing movement at the end of the range.  This type of stretch should be avoided because it can cause injury to the muscles.  A dynamic stretch is a type of functional stretch that uses mobility drills to prepare the body for a specific exercise, and is best performed as a warm-up before activity.  A dynamic stretching warm-up should be performed for several minutes to be effective, especially if including several different muscle groups.

Read Natalie Spangler’s first post for her Health and Fitness column.