Warming up and cooling down are undoubtedly the two most boring parts of any workout. Going through the various motions with no or very little weights can give you the feeling that what you’re doing is a waste of time. But is it? The goal of stretching and warming up in general is meant to help you not get injured during your workout, and after to prevent muscle stiffness that tends to follow.
But the next question now is, what’s best for when? There are many ways to warm up and cool-down, but which is best, static stretching or dynamic movements? While a lot depends on how well you understand your body, science has some answers that may help you decide on what may be best for you and when.
What Are They?
Before getting into the thick of the stats and studies, it’s best to define the two main types of stretching: dynamic and static. If you’ve done gym class or any group training sessions, you’ve probably done at least one of the two but maybe without knowing the terminology.
✓ The most basic one is static stretching. The concept here is easy – you stand in one spot and put tension elongating a part of your body. Lateral lunges, quad stretches, triceps stretches, hamstring stretches etc, all involve standing or sitting while keeping tension on only that part of your body.
✓ Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, involve movement. Along with elongating parts of your body, you are incorporating movements that also help you prepare for the movements you will do in your workouts, or the sport you’re playing, so essentially also preparing joints along with muscles.
The Benefits of Stretching
I’ll get into more depth with each one below, but there are a number of benefits to stretching, and warming up in general. Warming up is important before any workout, because it prepares muscles and joints for the workouts that are to come, reducing the possibility of injury. It also gets the heart progressively pumping blood faster around the body and as a result does not place increased stress upon the heart by jumping straight into all-out, 100% intensity exercising.
Stretching on the other hand, can also help relax the body from stiffness, and assist overall mobility of the body. If done statically, it is not too forceful on the body so your heart rate doesn’t go overly high so you can do it when you’re not going to the gym or alternatively just before you are about to leave the gym. But the question still persists, which method is better and when? Is it so important that I warm up and cool down or can I just do my main workout and leave? Well the answers may be a bit surprising.
What’s Best Pre-Workout?
To get straight to the point, dynamic stretching. In 2013, the Journal of strength and conditioning published a study that showed the improvement of a workout based on the factor of doing dynamic stretches or not . The results had a substantial difference. The participants who did dynamic stretches ended up with an average of a 8.36% higher 1-rep max on the squat than those who didn’t, and developed 22.68% greater lower body stability. You may have seen many sports teams warming up before a game using this method, and now you can understand why. If you don’t want to spend ages on a long warm-up that gets every inch of your body then focus on whatever you feel is very stiff before a workout, or if you are about to focus heavily on a certain body part, I would suggest revolving your warm up around that area, and not sticking to the same plan every day.
What’s Best Post-Workout?
This is where it gets interesting. For starters I honestly advise against doing any dynamic exercises because your goal here is to get the body back into a resting state, and the exercises are generally more focused on getting the blood pumping to parts of your body quickly. So the obvious answer is to statically stretch. It’s here that science and anecdotal evidence don’t quite go hand in hand.
The Cochrane database of systematic reviews published a study which analyzed multiple articles to establish some ground on the benefits of static stretching for muscle soreness . The results were that the benefits were negligible. On a 100-point scale, post exercise stretching produced a 1-point benefit after 24 hours than not stretching (and was half a point for pre-exercise stretching). Anecdotally, from playing junior sports there was always time devoted to cooling down and stretching out after practice and I was and still am under the impression that it makes a difference, but as I got older one piece of advice really stuck: stretch not straight after practice but 20 minutes or so after, because I’m stretching muscles that are still hot from exercise and hence are pretty elastic so the stretches won’t do much. Personally, I’ve never felt a need to cool down after a gym workout, but really saw benefits after cardio. From a scientific standpoint, it’s looking like all of those years I spent cooling down have gone to waste.
If you haven’t been deterred by the study and are still willing to stretch after exercise, here is some advice. While both of these studies focus on testing athletes stretching before exercise, their principles can still be applied to post exercise stretching. The first tip is simple – keep the stretches below 60 seconds per body part . Anything below is pretty equal in response (15 seconds, 30, …), going over 60 seconds typically responded with less strength in exercises. Secondly, for best results stretch each muscle group three times for about 15 seconds each and alternating between arms, antagonistic and agonistic muscles . The article also states that the activity must be enjoyed for maximal benefit, but I honestly feel if you want to get enjoyment out of it, you should take some time and do a yoga class. Because honestly, after setting that PR, sitting down and pulling a hamstring doesn’t sound too enthralling.
Take Home Message
Basically, the importance of warming up should be stressed a lot more than the cool down. Personally, I see both as useful tools in a person’s workout arsenal, but if you want to go purely by facts and time conservation I wouldn’t stress the static stretching too much. In reality, a lot depends on how you feel with your body – some people need to stretch, others don’t. Some people respond great to high volume workouts, others don’t. But If you want to do some further reading on what to stretch and how, you can look here for static stretching and dynamic exercises. If you have the time, experiment, you never know what will work for you otherwise.