We were once advised to stretch before a workout, then later told not to as it had no benefits. What’s the truth about stretching?

Few would argue about the benefits of stretching your major muscle groups. In fact it’s recommended at least twice a week to ensure you stay flexible as you age, helping you move better. When you stretch a muscle to the full extent of your ability and hold it – much like you would hold a yoga posture – this is called a static stretch. In yoga you can be asked to hold a stretch for a couple of minutes, while at other times it’s more like 15 to 30 seconds.

Static stretching before a workout of any type used to be standard advice. It would help avoid injury, the theory went, and aid performance. Then some studies came along that suggested that static stretching beforehand might not bring that many benefits. Stretching, it was said, could actually reduce muscular power, lessen athletic performance, and possibly increase the risk of injury.

“You should feel a stretch, but you shouldn’t feel pain. So there is no need to stretch farther than the range of motion you typically need.” – WebMD

It’s how long you stretch that matters

But it seems that the length of time you hold a stretch is what’s critical.
Recent research by four exercise scientists has found that static stretching can indeed affect muscular power, but this effect is generally only found if each stretch was held for more than 60 seconds, and the person then immediately became fully active, with no further warm-up. These aren’t really real-world conditions, says Malachy McHugh, at nytimes.com. McHugh is director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, and the study’s co-author.

Most people, he says, tend to hold a warm-up stretch for a maximum of about 30 seconds. And these short stretches, he says, turned out to be quite beneficial. People who stretched in this way for at least five minutes during a warm up were significantly less likely to strain or tear a muscle during their subsequent workout.

So should we all start stretching before exercise again? Stretching after a workout is still advisable for everyone. But stretching beforehand is only really recommended for people who play basketball, soccer, tennis or other sports that involve leaping, sprinting and potentially muscle-ripping movements, says McHugh.

Simple back stretch

If you have back pain from sitting at a desk all day, dynamic stretches (stretching through an entire range of motion) that reverse that posture could help.

A good work-related back stretch is the Standing Cat-Camel.
• Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent.
• Lean forward, placing your hands just above your knees.
• Round your back so that your chest is closed and your shoulders are curved forward.
• Then arch your back so that your chest opens and your shoulders roll back.
• Repeat several times, and aim to do the stretch at least once every hour.

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