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Ask The Trainer

Should I stretch before lifting weights?

By Chris Antonio | Feb 04, 2012

Q: I have always heard that stretching is a very important part of getting and staying in shape. However, I am confused on when I should take the time to stretch. Should I stretch right before I lift weights, or is there a better time and way of getting my muscles ready for my workout?

A: Anyone who ever played an organized sport or spent time lifting weights at the local gym has probably heard that preworkout stretching is essential if you want to perform your best and stay injury-free, but there’s a lot more to this issue than meets the eye. In fact it’s quite possible that stretching before working out may decrease your performance and could possibly put you at greater risk of being injured. At least that’s what the most recent research seems to indicate.

That’s why it’s essential to learn when to stretch and how to properly warm up if you want to get the most out of your workouts. Here is some information to help you make the right decision.

What we know
Recently, the scientific community has verified what many weight lifters and strength athletes have theorized for years - stretching before lifting weights will actually make you weaker. A 2011 study conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine found that stretching can decrease strength and power by as much as 20 percent for up to 60 minutes, possibly making it a bad choice before doing a workout.

When I was a young power lifter and my goal was to lift the most weight possible for one repetition, I specifically made sure I didn’t stretch before attempting a maximum lift, because I knew a tight muscle was a stronger muscle, and stretching would defeat the purpose. Don’t get me wrong; there is definitely a time and place to stretch, but I personally believe that directly before your workout is not best, and now there is sufficient evidence to at least open the topic up for debate.

Although I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg and there will be many more studies and articles that focus on this issue, it’s certainly something to consider before haphazardly adding a preworkout stretching routine just because your high school coach said you should.

Stretching is not a warm-up
Based on the questions I receive, I’ve come to the conclusion that many people are confused about the difference between stretching before a workout and a warm-up. Stretching is manually lengthening the muscle in order to increase the range of motion, but a warm-up is using light physical activity to get the blood flowing and elevate the body temperature to prepare for physical activity. In my opinion, a warm-up is much more effective and will serve as an excellent preworkout activity in place of a stretching routine. I prefer my clients to do a very light and easy 8-10 minutes on the elliptical, arch trainer, rowing machine or jogging.

Warm-ups can also be done with other movements such as jumping jacks, arm circles, jumping rope or other exercises.

Incorporate dynamic stretching
One of my favorite preworkout activities to loosen muscles and prepare the nervous system for a great workout is dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is like combining a warm-up and stretching routine together by performing a series of controlled movements like leg and arm swings that slowly move you closer to your maximum range of motion with sports-specific movements. This type of warm-up is generally used for athletes, but I’ve found it to be invaluable for people of all levels. I usually perform dynamic stretches after a brief warm-up of 8-10 minutes of light cardio and before weight training, when the body’s core temperature is up and the joints are lubricated.

When should I stretch?
I firmly believe stretching is a very important part of any workout routine, but I prefer it to be done a couple of hours after a workout when the person is relaxed, the muscles are not full of blood, and it doesn’t impact the strength or performance of the trainee. It can also be done on off days when you can concentrate on increasing range of motion and keeping tighter areas of the body in check.

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