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Stretching during a workout boosts health — but not for the reason you think

Stretching may not prevent sore muscles or injury, but it can help maintain mobility, joint health, and feels pretty great. Here's how to get started with stretching.

As a deeply unathletic person, gym class was my waking nightmare, punctuated by myriad soccer balls to the stomach and scoring goals for the wrong team. The one thing I didn’t absolutely loathe or suck at was the mandatory stretching session we had to do before playing whatever nightmare sport was on the agenda that day. Unlike getting a ball in the esophagus, stretching feels good. But is it good for you? The conventional P.E. teacher wisdom that stretching before working out protects you from injury may be less grounded in physical fact than you think.

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So exactly how beneficial is stretching? That depends on everything from when and how you stretch to your reasons for doing it in the first place.

Here’s what the science says about what your body can — and can’t — gain from regular stretching sessions.

Should you stretch before or after a workout?

Despite what gym teachers across the land have been saying for decades, there’s no solid evidence to suggest that stretching before (or after) a workout prevents injury or muscle soreness as a result of the activity.

In 2007, researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia conducted a systematic review of ten previously published studies on the effects of stretching either before or after athletic activity. Most of the studies they looked at focused on stretching prior to exercise; only one study looked at stretching following a workout. The researchers found stretching had “minimal or no effect” on the muscle soreness experienced between half a day and three days after the physical activity.

Then in 2010, the same researchers wanted to see if stretching programs specifically designed to prevent or treat delayed-onset muscle soreness were effective at what they claimed to do. That study found stretching may reduce post-workout soreness by a very small amount (between half a point and one point on a scale of 100).

“The evidence from randomized studies suggests that muscle stretching, whether conducted before, after, or before and after exercise, does not produce clinically important reductions in delayed-onset muscle soreness in healthy adults,” they write in the study.

Static stretching can help develop flexibility and maintain joint health.

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If stretching simply feels good and you like to do it before working out, don’t fret — you can keep doing it. These researchers may not have found any clinical benefit to the practice, but they didn’t find any harm in doing so, either.

When it comes to stretching to prevent injury, there is more evidence to support the idea that increased flexibility reduces the likelihood of injury.

A 2011 study looking at football players who stretched found “it is likely that increased flexibility results in decreased incidence of muscle strain injury in football players,” according to the study authors.

Some studies have found stretching may do more to help prevent injury resulting from some types of exercise as opposed to others. A 2004 study, for example, looked at people who stretched prior to “sports involving bouncing and jumping activities with a high intensity of stretch-shortening cycles (SSCs) [e.g. soccer and football]” compared to people who stretched before other types of exercise, like jogging and cycling.

Specifically, the authors of this study found stretching may have a beneficial effect on our tendons’ ability to absorb energy. Tendons are the connective tissues that attach muscles to bones. In sports considered to have a ‘high impact’ on the body, like soccer or sprinting, the tendons, these authors argue, take more on stress than they do during ‘low impact’ activities, like cycling. As a result, stretching before a high-impact workout may hold some benefit for preventing injury — but stretching before low-impact workouts “may have no beneficial effect on injury prevention,” they conclude.

But again — they found no harm in stretching before any kind of workout, either.

Stretching vs. warming up

You might think stretching and warming up are the same thing, but they’re not. The distinction matters, because it affects the order of things you do to prepare for a workout optimally.

The research is quite clear that people should stretch after they’ve warmed up their muscles a bit — by doing a few minutes of easy walking, say, or a few minutes of light cycling. Once the blood is flowing to your muscles, that’s when you should start doing any stretches you want to do before you get into the meat of your workout.

Research suggests 30 to 60 seconds is the optimal amount of time to hold a stretch.

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While the research may be a bit mixed when it comes to stretching pre or post-working out, what’s clear is how good stretching is for the body regardless of when you stretch.

Numerous studies confirm stretching is an excellent way to keep your muscles strong, flexible, and healthy. When our muscles are strong and flexible, it’s easier for us to maintain a range of motion in our joints — and that’s critical regardless of what physical activity you’re doing.

The best way to start stretching

If you’re new to stretching or, like me, you have spent the last two years being the human equivalent of a couch potato, the Columbine Health Systems Center for Healthy Aging at Colorado State University has four strategies to get you started:

  • Start by stretching two to three times per week and hold each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Eventually, when the stretches feel comfortable, you can increase the time you hold a pose. Between 30 and 60 seconds is the optimal time to hold a stretch.
  • Colorado State University students developed an exercise video library via the Center for Healthy Aging’s THRIVE Project. Their introductory, full-body stretch video may be a good place for you to start.
  • Google and YouTube can be good places to find daily stretch routines. Look out for videos that focus on static and dynamic stretching techniques.
  • Most importantly, pay attention to how your body feels. Stretching won’t always be comfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. Don’t push yourself too far too fast.

Ultimately, stretching might not help you avoid muscle soreness or aching joints after your workout. But taking a minute to limber up can help keep your body in shape long enough to enjoy working out for decades to come.

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