The moment you finish a great workout, you’re probably ready to hit the shower and grab a snack. But taking a few minutes for a quick stretching session might help you prevent injury and improve flexibility. Though some research indicates that static stretching doesn’t necessarily impact exercise performance itself, dynamic stretching seems to play an important role. It relieves your muscles of pent-up tension from working out or merely day-to-day activities. According to our experts, here are six reasons why you should never skip stretching.
Stretching gives you a chance to check in with your body.
Los Angeles-based Running Coach Martise Moore relies on stretching for a simple reason. It helps her notice what’s going on with her body on a given day. “Often times, you don’t realize something is tight or aggravated until you stretch,” she says.
The need for stretching also varies per individual, says Dr. Alex Robles of New York Presbyterian Hospital. A quick touch base with your muscles and joints through stretching allows you to note where you might be limited in mobility or movement. Then you can adjust accordingly. “Some individuals are inherently very flexible and may not need to stretch on a regular basis,” he says. “Others may have chronic limitations in certain movement patterns and will benefit from a regular stretching routine. For example, if you cannot perform a full range of motion squat with proper form—i.e., keeping your ankles flat on the floor, your spine neutral, and knees aligned with your toes—then you need to stretch.”
Different workouts call for different stretches, so customize based on what you need.
“Generally, longer, lower-intensity workouts do not need as much stretching as shorter, higher-intensity workouts,” explains Dr. Kane Maiers of MedExpress. “Focusing on large muscle groups [that] you’ll be using in the workout is important. If you’re a runner, you’ll want to focus more on making sure [that] the muscles in your legs and torso are loose and flexible. On the other hand, if you’re lifting weights, you’ll want to put more energy into stretching out your upper body. However, it’s a good idea to do an all-over stretch whenever possible.”
This is where a warm-up and cool down come into play. Dynamic stretches, like high knees or side lunges, aim to help loosen muscles and lubricate joints, says Dr. Maiers. But, after a workout, you don’t necessarily need to sit down and stretch for a long time. Incorporating a cooldown is more important since it allows for recovery and a return to your resting heart rate.
“If you are doing a lower-intensity workout or if your workout declined in intensity as it continued to the end, you may not need a cool down,” says Personal Trainer Concita Thomas. “One example of this is high-intensity circuits followed by walking and core exercises on the floor. In this case, you wouldn’t need a cool down because it was built into the workout. Likewise, if you did a moderate-intensity workout and plan to walk home from the gym, the walk home can serve as the cool down. It is most important to do an official cool down when the workout intensity was high and you plan to be completely sedentary immediately after, like completing a boot camp [and] then driving home. As for stretching, it can be done anytime and doesn’t have to be done immediately after a workout.”
It improves functionality and flexibility, which lowers your risk of injury.
Many people assume that stretching prevents injury. However, that’s not entirely true. Stretching to improve flexibility has the potential to increase your range of motion. This naturally decreases your risk of injury. But a long static hold with cold muscles before a workout can actually cause harm if you’re not careful. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, is said to improve flexibility and help get blood flowing to your muscles to prepare for a workout, says Dr. Maiers.
“In general, I would suggest that the classic static stretching isn’t terribly helpful,” shares Running Coach Kyle Kranz. “I find [that] many people perform static stretches simply because they feel they should, but [they] do them without purpose and sort of mindlessly. Everyone has seen someone (or done themselves) the stretch where you pull your heel up to your butt, or the sit and reach type stretch. Generic static stretches don’t do a great deal for preventing injury or reducing post-workout soreness. However, if there’s a current or potential injury, such as plantar fasciitis, static stretching the area with such purpose can be beneficial.”
According to Aaptiv Trainer Candice Cunningham, stretching the right way promotes better mobility and functionality. “When muscles are too tight, you will overcompensate in other areas, which can lead to imbalances and injury,” she says. “You will also be able to move about your day better, and feel better overall.”
It may prevent lactic acid buildup.
Aaptiv Trainer Kelly Chase believes that stretching is a must. It aids in the prevention of lactic acid buildup, which in turn can prevent sore and tight muscles. Dr. Maiers also supports this viewpoint because, when lactic acid builds up during a workout, it can cause soreness and fatigue. Stretching helps reduce those aches and pains, as well as aids in a more gradual recovery.
Still, certain studies discredit the role of stretching (both before and after exercise) in addressing muscle soreness or risk of injury in a meaningful way. Yes, it may help reduce lactic acid after a tough workout. However, you’re more likely to ward off injury and keep muscles loose through a proper warm-up or cooldown involving quick, dynamic stretches.
Stretching supports major muscles in the body that are used most often.
For most people, Dr. Robles stresses stretching the hips and the thoracic spine. “We live in a culture where it’s not uncommon to sit for six to eight hours a day, every day,” he says. “Sitting creates tightness in the anterior hips from being in a flexed position for several hours. It often leads to rounding of the upper back, lengthening and weakening those important muscles. In addition, the latissimus muscles tend to get tight from the constant use of keyboards, cellphones, and other technological gadgets, further decreasing thoracic spine mobility.”
Thomas advocates for paying special attention to tight and overactive muscles. If you have muscles that are weaker or overstretched, you can replace stretching with foam rolling. And, like Dr. Robles said, Thomas agrees with regularly stretching the hip flexors, quadriceps, and chest when you’re short on time or less likely to devote time to stretching. For runners, Moore says to target the muscle or muscles post-run that tend to feel the tightest: hamstrings, hip flexors, quads, and calves.
You don’t have to stretch for a very long to reap the benefits.
Thomas likes to remind people that stretching doesn’t need to be an “official” part of your workout routine. Instead, she prioritizes a speedy warm-up like jumping jacks, squats, or push-ups to wake up your muscles. For Chase, using leg swings and side steps can also help activate glutes, adductors/abductors, hamstrings, and quadriceps.
“Stretching after a workout is not necessary, but I certainly recommend it,” says Dr. Maiers. “I always emphasize to my patients the benefits of stretching pre- and post-workout. However, I understand that many athletes lead busy lives and don’t always have a lot of time to stretch after a workout. Even taking a couple of walking laps around the gym to cool down after a run or spending five minutes doing some arm swings will be beneficial.”