Should You Stretch Before Or After A Workout?

Photographed By Caroline Tompkins.
If you're the type of person who discreetly leaves a SoulCycle class right before the stretching portion, it's your life and your decision. We're all busy and understand how obnoxious the line for the shower can be. Still, stretching is good for you for a number of reasons: it decreases stress, reduces pain and stiffness, increases your range of motion, and can help lower your risk of injury, according to the American Council on Exercise. But the "right time to stretch" still seems to have stumped lots of exercise experts. Is it better to stretch before a workout, or stick around for the stretch at the end of class? As it turns out, it's complicated.
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The old logic used to be that you should start every workout with static stretches, which are stretches that are held still for a short period of time, like a quad stretch, or overhead triceps stretch. Then, researchers discovered that doing static stretches could actually interfere with performance during a workout, particularly if you're lifting weights. So, it was thought that static stretches should be saved for after a workout, when your muscles are warmer and you're more flexible. Hence why an indoor cycling class like Soul ends with stretches.
However, that doesn't mean that all pre-workout stretching is a bad idea. Dynamic stretches, which are active exercises that take your body through the full range of motion, tend to be the best before a workout, because they prepare your body for the movements that you'll do later on. Most trainers use dynamic stretches, like walking lunges and leg swings, as part of an active warm-up to increase people's core body temperature and decrease muscle stiffness ahead of a workout.
But a new study that was published in June kind of complicates this further. For the study, 20 male athletes were instructed to change up the stretches they did in their pre-workout warm up each day (static stretches one day, dynamic the next, and so on), so the researchers could note how it affected their performance. Weirdly, their performance didn't change at all from day to day. These findings suggest that as long as you properly warm up, stretching before a workout is not going to make or break your performance.
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Given all this information, your best bet is to make sure you really truly warm up before you jump into a work out, and don't forget to do some static stretches when you're done. A lot depends on the type of workout you're doing, and most people do a combination of dynamic and static stretches before working out anyways. For example, if you're a dancer and know you need to lift your leg high, then you'll want to stretch and practice your extensions beforehand. Or if you're a rock climber, you might find that stretching your hips makes some movements easier on the wall.
Regardless of the type of the workout you're doing, most people can also benefit from using a foam roller. Before a workout, it's helpful to roll out any muscles that tend to feel tense (for example, if you usually run, consider rolling out your calves and hamstrings) or uneven. Afterwards, you can continue to hit the spots that feel overworked or problematic in any way.
While taking time to roll out or staying for the stretch portion of your favorite workout class might seem like a waste of time, it'll pay off in the long run. So, the bottom line for all of this is that yes, you do have to stretch, and you should do it after your workout — even if you've got somewhere to be.
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