Stretching Before Working Out: Do We Really Need To Go Over This?
Updated: Nov 10, 2022
Sighhhh, no matter how far we as a species have evolved, and advanced as we are as a society (although, when you factor in social media, I'm not as convinced) pre-workout stretching is still a concept I get asked about. So here's the deal. No, you don't need to, nor should you, static stretch before you workout. There are a myriad of reasons as to why. Boredom being the first one that comes to mind.
I think people stretch pre-workout for a few reasons.
They don't know what else to do to warm up.
A habit they learned in high school.
Its a case of "well, that's how I've always done it."
Can you stretch pre-workout? Sure, why not. Its your workout so ultimately its your call. Just know there are much more effective ways to get your nervous system primed for your muscles to move your bones once you get going.
Here's What I Think Let's break this down from the common sense perspective first, then we'll get into some sciencey factoids. Here we go. If you are going to move dynamically in your workout (lift weights, do HITT classes, run, swim, ride a bike, ski, play volleyball, basketball, etc) and your muscles have to rapidly move your bones (not too mention how you'll need your nervous system to coordinate the whole ball of wax taking place), how much sense does it make to sit still while trying to "lengthen" a muscle? Other than none, I can't think of a reason as to why you'd do this. First of all, if you just changed the actual length of a muscle, you probably need to finish your workout at your Dr's office because you just injured yourself.
You DON'T WANT to be more flexible. Mentally, sure, physically, no. What you really want is more joint mobility. The biggest reason being that as you get stronger, your nervous system will allow your muscles to take your joints through a greater ranges of motion.
You can't have joint MObility (what most people call "flexibility") without joint
STAbility. This is why your muscles tighten up. You've got a muscle imbalance and your nervous system locks down ranges of motion to keep your joints safe.
This is one of the reasons behind the "happy fun spots" you find when you use a foam roller. Particularly in the IT (ITS TENDER!!!) Band area. You get these when you've got muscle adhesions in the tissues. These are "microspasms" put into place to limit a joint's range of motion. Stretching doesn't fix this, fixing length/tension relationships in the muscles does (1).
And while we're at it, walking on a treadmill DOESN'T count as a warming up. So we can take this one off the board too. Especially if someone holding a clipboard is standing next to you, and is the reason why you're on said hamster wheel-esque conveyor belt.
Plus, with the stretching, it ain't all that uncommon to see people trying to rip a muscle off the bone as they try to force a larger range of motion than they neurologically have the right to go through. You shouldn't have more strain on your face trying to get your muscles to RELAX than you do during an actual exercise. Besides, its poor form to be "that person" at the gym who causes those around them to experience "auditory lactic acid accumulation" as you try to get the rigor mortis out of your muscles. We can also throw on top of this that it almost seems like a prerequisite that the most horrible posture possible is a requirement to perform said "stretch." If you're going to force my ears to hurt, don't do it to my eyes with "ocular lactic acid accumulation" as well.
I'll get off that soap box before I dive deeper into a rabbit hole that doesn't need visiting.
But before I do, yes, I DO KNOW that it is IMPOSSIBLE to have lactic acid accumulate in your ears and eyes. I write words to make points, and hopefully score a few by making you laugh along the way. So, with that being said, stop wasting your time stretching pre-workout to get loose and start moving to warmup instead. Besides, there aren't really any injury prevention advantages so the cost to benefit ratio is pretty low. Plus, again, its boring. And no, moving your thumb scrolling social media on your phone as you waste time stretching to get loose doesn't count as a dynamic warmup either btw. The good news is, there studies showing that your life post workout isn't really affected positively if you stretch prior to starting your exercise bout. Besides, if a muscle isn't warmed up, you could open up yourself to the potential of an injury by forcing a cold muscle to lengthen (2). I haven't had clients stretch to warm in well over a decade and a half if not longer. They may roll out for a few minutes, but after that they start moving. Usually with diagonal patterning like bird dogs or dead bugs. Crawling is also a good way to get loose as is getting up and down from the floor, and you may even elevate your heart rate along the way. We also know that you may inhibit your body's ability to move with strength power and explosion stretching prior to a workout. Now, this matters more at the top end of the athletic performance food chain, but it still bares mentioning. READ: If you are getting paid to compete, you are at the top end of the athletic food chain. So, again, you won't do anything to prevent injuries and you may take some pop out of your ability to move your best even if your livelihood doesn't depend on the quality of your workouts (3). Ideally, you should be using a dynamic warm up to get loose for a workout. Some people use their first set of movements to get loose. Some people (raises hand) like to push, pull and chop to get loose.
I always start my workouts with a mini band on the knees side stepping into diagonal monster steps forward and backward. After that, its on to split stance pushing, pulling and chopping with exercise bands to further warm up the hips and get my diagonals online.
Once that's done, very often, its on to Turkish Get Ups and after that, its go time. All said and done that is only about 5:00-7:00 minutes, I've hit every muscle in the body, the nervous system is primed and I'm more than ready to go.
"It is absolutely not necessary if you do light warmup sets emphasizing a full range of motion," says Bryan Fitzsimmons from Coach Fitzz Online Training. "A full range of motion during strength training exercises is one of the best ways to increase mobility."
Here's a video of what he uses as a dynamic warm up for his clients.
Benefits of a Dynamic Warmup (4) The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), who I'm also certified through, gives the following benefits for using a dynamic warmup pre-workout. Its pretty solid science, and once you see it, it will make more sense as to why you should move to get warmed up. You Get To Increase Both Your Heart and Respiratory Rate This will up the body's ability to perform work, increases blood flow to the muscles and the body's ability to use oxygen. You Turn Up Tissue Temperature This is going to give a better rates of muscle contraction as well increase your metabolic rate. Not too mention the quality of your soft tissue and its ability to expand and contract. You Will Get Increased Psychological Preperation to Move This is a big one for me. There are days that I have no desire to workout, and when I get my glutes into gear and actually start to move, the fog seems to lift and I'm more mentally prepared to experience "minor amounts of upper and or lower body muscular discomfort as a result of my actions" like I tell my clients. And yet, I'm still the bad guy when they're sore. Whatever. I can't stress this enough. Your warmup is meant to do one thing, and one thing only as far as I'm concerned: rev up your nervous system to better prepare your body for moving. The best way to go about this to do dynamic exercises that get the muscles moving bones coordinated by the thing sitting between your ears (5).
Here are some of my favorite things to have people do at the beginning of their workouts to get loose and get their brain ready to better coordinate muscles moving bones.
LIGHT 1/2 kneeling Pallof Presses will get the body ready to move really well. Being on one knee puts you in a stretch position. The exercises works the glutes, lateral core and all of the muscles of pushing and pulling if you activate your muscles the right way.
You don't need to go nuts here. Using a tension of 3-4/10 for :30/side is a good place to start. Remember, you're NOT trying to kill yourself, you're simply getting loose.
This Stick Mobility movement will stretch the mid-back, shoulders, hips and pretty much everything you need to loosen up to move your best. Applying force with hands away from each other will activate the posture muscles of the back as well.
If you've only got time to do one warm up movement, you'd be hard pressed to find something better than crawling. You get a ton of muscle moving, not too mention the way this fires up the nervous system to connect diagonal loading lines.
In fact, if there's a corrective exercise you hate that you need to do, put it in your warmup. I do this with my workouts and I will typically move better when I do. This in addition to addressing any movement gaps I have.
So there you have it people. Some very solid PE prose as to why you don't need to stretch before a workout. Think about what's on tap for your workout on a particular day, then tailor your warmup accordingly. It will be your best bet to maximizing the benefits you'll get from your workouts.
If that's something you need help with, click here to contact me, and we can put together a comprehensive movement plan to help your weekly movement habit. References (1) "NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training," Michael A. Clark, Scott C. Lucett
(2) "Ask the doctor: Stretching before exercise," William Kormos, M.D., Editor in Chief, Harvard Men's Health Watch (3)) "Should you stretch before or after your workout? The final answer, once and for all," Caroline Roberts (4) "Warm-up in the Cold Months," Adam Annacone (5) "13 Best Warm-Up Exercises To Try Before Your Workout," Kristine Thomason