I was asked a question earlier today, so I am going to put on my degree and certification as a Corrective Exercise Specialist through the NASM to answer. I was asked if it was good to do static stretching before working out to get the muscles “loosened” up. For example, bending down to touch your toes to loosen the hamstrings and lower back. The answer to this question, most cases, is “no.” I will first answer why, then explain the proper progression of before and after workout.
In attempt to simplify for anyone not too familiar with muscle anatomy and physiology, I will first show you a diagram of how our muscles look under a super microscope. Example in that this could be your bicep muscle:
If you look further, there are sections broken down into actin and myosin, in which the image below, you can see when you make a muscle or your muscle has to contract to help lift or move something, these filaments move across one another, back and forth, creating movement in the muscle. Contraction, relaxation. There are potentially hundreds of these sections that run along a muscle, all performing their duties of contracting and relaxing in unison to help move your body in manner intended.
What happens throughout our day, muscles can become damaged, or be stressed to a point that they may be prone to injury, so in order to prevent further damage, sections as shown above will remain in that contracted period, almost like a stubborn child who crosses his arms and says “no! I am not moving!” So a person might have a bicep or we will use a more real life situation, a hamstring muscle that can move, however, there may be many sections that are “stuck” and will not engage in activity with the others. So a person may be running, but potentially, a section of the hamstring muscle is not being engaged, actually making the ones that are engaged, have to try and work harder to maintain a proper movement pattern. This could result in a complete “charlie horse” which some people right now are saying, “oh yeah! those damn things hurt!”
So why wouldn’t stretching prior to exercise help with this? Simply for the reason that all you would be stretching are the sections of those actin and myosin fibers that are not “locked” up. The damaged sections would remain locked and you would still be subjected to further injury engaging in your activities. So what is best?
The best thing you can do prior to engaging in activity, especially one requiring a greater amount of force production, would be either a foam roller or some type of massage pressure into the areas that are locked. The reason for doing this is called Muscle Spindles, which help protect our muscles from over stretching when a stretch is applied. By applying pressure to the area that is locked, and by holding that pressure there, it deactivates the muscle spindles and allows for the actin and myosin to unlock and return to its normal resting length. I have included a good pdf to help you get started on foam rolling if you have never done this before. This is one I own. Simple and cost effective: Order right from Amazon for $19.00
So prior to exercise, spending 10-15 minutes doing some foam rolling is a great way to unlock those sections that are not mobile, and once we complete the areas and create more muscle activation, it is on to some dynamic flexibility and general warmup.
This can be accomplished by some running in place, arm circles, walking lunges, jumping jacks and the like. The purpose now is to get the muscles to begin contracting, forcing blood into the area, and warming up the muscles. Complete your movements in long and accentuated manner to provide full range of motion around the joint.
Now it is time to perform your activity of running, jumping or weight lifting. Now, not only are you warmed up and ready for the activity, you will have a greater force production in that muscle since all cylinders are firing!
Once you complete your activity, now is a good time to complete your bout of static stretching, stretching the muscles and tendons that have shortened due to physical exertion.
Following this progression should allow you a safer and less injury prone session of activity. Good luck!
Masters Degree in Corrective and Rehabilitative Exercise
Licensed with National Academy of Sports Medicine as Corrective Exercise Specialist