Why We Should Stretch Before and After Exercise

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Guest blog by Sam Hadadi

Why We Need to Warm Up and Down Before Exercise

While it can be all too easy to simply hop on the treadmill or dash for the weights section when your gym is (miraculously) crowd-free, it’s crucial that you hold your horses.

You’ve probably heard over and over that it’s important to warm up before exercise. You know that it warms up the muscles, improves flexibility, and even prevents injury. Yet, glance around your gym, and you’ll probably see that very few of us actually heed this advice.

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Of course, your aching limbs will also thank you for cooling down and stretching out properly afterwards too, but dashing home to a comfy sofa or hitting the smoothie bar may seem even more tempting.

However, if you’re thinking of skipping out on the limbering up, then here’s why you should start – and end – your workout properly. 

Why Warm Up Before You Work Out?

You’ll have seen endless workout DVDs or circuit classes that get you doing jumping jacks, light jogging or skipping before you start your workout proper, but why? Well, an effective warm-up will not only get your entire body prepared for specific exercises, but it also offers the following benefits:

  • Helps to prevent injury to muscles, tendons and ligaments
  • Increases blood flow to muscles so that they can react quicker
  • Boosts the oxygen and nutrients flow to muscles to stop you from getting out of breath
  • Increases flexibility and movement in the joints
  • Slowly increases heart rate
  • Prepares you mentally for a super-charged session
  • Improves co-ordination and reaction times
  • Prompts hormonal changes so that your body can regulate energy production 

Sounds pretty handy, right? When you put it like that, it’s hard to imagine why you wouldn’t want to warm-up before exercise. 

How Can I Warm Up?

Ideally, a warm up should be done before any exercise, whether you’re taking part in cardio, lifting weights, or even doing a relatively gentle exercise such as yoga. It doesn’t need to take up hours and hours of your time, either. In fact, you only need to spend around 5 – 10 minutes to feel the full effects.

So, how do you do it? Well, the type of warm up you should do largely depends on the kind of exercise you want to enjoy. A runner may warm up with a light jog or brisk walk, while tennis players may want to make a few, gentle serves to warm the body.

However, as a safe guide, the perfect warm up session will include some cardio moves (think light jogging, jumping jacks, shadow boxing) to bring the heart rate up first. While it may be tempting to jump straight into stretching without any cardio, this can cause injury – stretching a cold muscle can cause strains and minor tears.

Once you’ve got your heart going, then you can try combining this with some gentle stretching of any stiff areas to help to prepare the muscles. If you’re taking part in a big game or match, such as football, then you may also benefit from explosive strength exercises, such as sprint drills or jumps, to prepare the body for sudden movements.

Of course, if you’re unsure on the perfect way to warm up, it’s always best to consult a personal trainer first.

Why Stretch After Working Out?

Trust us, we get it. The very last thing you want to do after a workout is hang around to stretch and cool down.

Yet, if you’re the kind of person who will simply touch your toes or do some arm swings before hitting the showers, then stop. Stretching properly is an important building block in achieving that dream body. In fact, after performing endless muscle contractions during exercise, you need to stretch to reset the body and to prevent unnecessary injuries and pains.

Need more convincing? Here’s why you need to stretch and cool down properly after working out:

  • Prevents injuries and back problems
  • Improves posture and helps your body to “reset”
  • Helps to reduce muscle fatigue, aches and pains (although there’s no proof1 that it will prevent delayed onset muscle soreness)
  • Helps muscles to recover faster
  • Calms the mind and aids in relaxation and stress relief
  • Increases flexibility and range of motion 

How to Stretch

Feel a bit silly stretching it out? Don’t worry, there are plenty of different stretches you can do to relax the muscles and gain in flexibility. We like to use a combination of Yoga and Pilates moves, although the NHS does provide a handy guide2 on some of the best (and simplest) stretches to try.

When stretching, it’s worth checking your body to see which areas are particularly tight, and you can then gently target that area with some stretches. We love the “cat” and “cobra” stretches for sore and aching backs, while the “downward dog” is wonderful for tight hamstrings. Please don’t push any stretches though, particularly if you’re sore, and avoid moving areas where you’re in pain or in the joint seems inflamed.

You could also try using traction (such as a resistance band) to increase your favourite stretches and to also reduce the compression and pressure felt by joints.  It’s also worth remembering that you need to breathe through stretches as holding your breath will cause muscles to tense.

As with anything, always consult a PT and ask for their advice if you’re unsure.

Sam Hadadi

1. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120724-you-must-stretch-before-exercise

2. http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/fitness/Pages/how-to-stretch.aspx

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Sam Hadadi is an ex-BBC journalist and now a freelance writer specialising in fitness and food. Sam is co-founder of a great blog, www.iamintothis.com.