Many people ask me about stretching, especially post workout.
Walk into any gym and you will see personal training clients being intimately stretched by their trainers after a workout (it’s called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation but often looks a bit saucy to me).
You might reasonably think that this is because stretching is a vital part of training but the truth is that clients just like being stretched. It does feel good after a tough workout.
That is not to say that there isn’t a role for PNF stretching, just that it is often used as a superfluous ‘service’ that people have come to expect, regardless of their mobility needs, and is taught as such on PT courses.
There is no need to be hugely flexible for weight training; in fact, being hyper-mobile, which is much more common in women than in men, is detrimental to joint stability.
In my experience, most women need to be stronger, not more flexible.
That said, people do get stiff and tight in particular areas, so some targeted stretching can be a good idea to improve mobility.
Remember, though, that training the full range of motion in a variety of movements will, over time, provide the requisite mobility without lots of additional static stretching.
For example, you can improve squat mobility by squatting, rather than stretching the relevant muscles individually.
I tend not to stretch my clients (or myself) post workout and yet we still improve our mobility. This is because we focus on the warm up, utilising muscle activation and light movements to get the body moving better. We also strengthen our postural muscles by doing full body weight training, so no single area gets tighter than another.
Your warm up should include dynamic stretching, which is another way of saying that you should move your joints through their full range of motion with no external load.
For example, air squats and lunges will warm up your legs and lower back nicely and will improve mobility in those movements over time.
Most people (and quite a lot of trainers) get this the wrong way round; they warm up on a cardio machine, moving through a limited range of motion, and then do lots of static stretching after their workout.
Pre workout is also the time to do activation of particular muscle groups, such as the glutes, which are often inhibited or ‘switched off’ in people who have sedentary lifestyles. I have all of my clients do glute activation exercises before training. I used to be quite sceptical about it – it was never something I did myself when I was learning to lift and I still got on ok! However it seems to help people, so nowadays I tend to include it.
If you know any yoga, you can utilise these movements in your warm up as yoga is essentially dynamic stretching.
If you are doing full range of motion movements in your training, there is no need to stretch everything after a workout as it will have been mobilised during the training session.
However, it can be a good idea after your workout to stretch anything that is unusually tight, or where you are habitually tight.
Common problem areas for women are: calves (from wearing high heels), hip flexors (from sedentary job) and shoulders (from bad posture associated with computers, TV etc).
The bench press and similar horizontal pressing movements are notorious for causing tightness around the shoulders and chest, so it is recommended that you stretch these areas after a pressing workout.
Another tactic is to do a pulling exercise straight after your pushing exercise in the same plane; for example, after bench pressing, do some horizontal rows. This will prevent you from getting too tight across the chest.
Does stretching prevent soreness?
No, neither pre nor post workout stretching relieves soreness (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
The most effective relief from DOMS is exercise, so a walk or other active rest is the best way to relieve soreness after a workout.
Does stretching prevent injury?
It used to be thought that static stretching before a workout prevented injury but we now know it doesn’t.
What has been found to help is a dynamic warm up – doing full range of motion movements with no or very light load.
Foam rolling and soft tissue release
Habitual tightness is often more effectively solved through soft tissue release techniques. This can range from a simple foam roller for performing your own myofascial release, to a therapist using massage, ART or other therapy to release tight areas.
If you are going to do foam rolling, it is best used pre workout, but can also be done at other times of day (e.g. while watching telly in the evening).
Personally I find that release techniques really come into their own when you are rehabbing an injury but I have not noticed a great difference at other times.
- The best way to improve general mobility is to perform full range of motion exercises. You don’t have to do any static stretching after your workout unless you have a particular area that is very tight or inflexible.
- You shouldn’t do any static stretching before your workout. Warm up using light full range of motion movements such as air squats, walking lunges and band pull aparts.
- Consider soft tissue release to work on very tight areas.
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