Health / Expert Advice

The Difference Between Stretching and Warming Up

You may be surprised to learn the two play pretty different roles in your fitness routine.

You may hear stretching and warming up often used interchangeably. However, they’re not necessarily the same thing. Stretching and warming up both serve their own purposes in your training program. Here, expert trainers help explain the difference between the two, and the role each play in our workouts.

What exactly is the difference between stretching and warming up?

The difference between stretching and warming up lies in their purpose. Philip Gonçalves, head trainer at Força Fuel, explains, “The aim of a stretch, and the aim of a warmup are two different things. With a general warmup, the main objectives are to elevate core temperature and increase blood flow to working muscles…whereas the aim of stretching is to increase flexibility and joint range of motion.”

What are the benefits of warming up?

The intention of a warmup is to get your whole body ready for training. In a warmup, your heart rate should increase, which will stimulate more blood and oxygen supply to your muscles. As Gonçalves says, it raises your body temperature so your muscles, ligaments, and tendons will work with ease. This will adequately prepare them for more strenuous exercise.

“The purpose of a warmup is to “increase the blood flow to the muscle, which decreases any tightness, reducing the risk of injury,” says Kelly Chase, certified holistic health coach, AADP, IIN, and Aaptiv trainer. “Warming up improves range of motion, so [that] the exercise can be maximized to full potential.”

Gonçalves agrees and recommends a “warm up specific to the work you’re about to carry out.” For example, if you plan to work on your squats, warm up with air squats first. This way, you are preparing your body for the forthcoming specific exercises by using the same muscles and body parts. You’ll also find that when you do add weights, it may actually be easier because your body is ready for it. Gonçalves adds, “The likelihood of having a great workout is greatly increased with a thorough warmup.”

What are the benefits of stretching?

In comparison, Gonçalves says, “The main benefits of stretching are increased flexibility.” He points out that while it “may not sound that important, increasing flexibility around the hamstring area can reduce the chances of back pain. [This is] something that 80 percent of us will suffer with throughout our lives, especially if you spend eight hours seated at a desk every day.”

Chase also adds, “It’s best to stretch, to allow the muscles to elongate [and loosen up], providing you with improved flexibility, which in turn prevents you from injury. If you have a tight muscle, another muscle can work harder to compensate for the tightness. When this happens, you have a muscle imbalance which can lead to injury.” This is usually when you experience a pulled muscle or other strain. Flexibility can also help alleviate some soreness you may experience after a tough workout.

Can stretching ever count as a warmup?

There are two main types of stretching: static and dynamic. Dynamic stretching involves moving as you stretch. Chase defines dynamic stretching as “a series of movements designed to prepare the muscles and joints for performance; this style of stretching improves range of motion.” For example, a twisting lunge is a dynamic stretch. This type of moving stretch can act as an appropriate warmup.

Static stretching, which Gonçalves does not recommend as a warmup, is the opposite of dynamic stretching. Static stretching involves holding a stretch for ten seconds or more and requires little movement beyond that one stretch. This is your standard, well-known stretching. For example, a standing toe-touch is a static stretch.

“I would include certain stretches as part of a warmup, generally of a dynamic nature. [While] there’s a time and a place for static stretching, prior to a workout is not that time,” he says.

Do we need to warm up and stretch before every workout?

Both trainers agree that warming up is important before every workout and even before stretching. “Stretching is the lengthening of your muscles and [it’s] best to stretch after a workout or at least after a warmup or dynamic stretch,” says Chase. “You want to warm up the muscles and get the blood flowing to those areas first, before trying to stretch the muscles. This could lead to injury if the muscles are not warmed up first.”

The bottom line: You need to warm up before every workout. Warming up helps to maximize your performance and reduce the risk of injury. Hold off on those classic static stretches that you probably did in P.E. class until after your workout. Otherwise, you may actually end up hindering your training.

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