A common question patients ask me is whether stretching should be done pre- or post-workout. My very unsatisfying answer is, “It really doesn’t matter.” I get the gist of the question, but I think there is a misconception that stretching is a warm-up exercise. No doubt one could stretch to warm up, but it wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice.
I usually tell my Los Angeles chiropractic clients that stretching is better suited as a lifestyle activity; consider it an exercise unto itself. So in that regard it would be the same as lifting weights to warm up–you could certainly do it, but again, it wouldn’t be my first choice.
I think the misconception of stretching as a warm-up started several decades ago, probably well before my youth; but I certainly remember playing sports in PE class and doing forward bending stretches beforehand. Ah yes, the bouncy toe touch…remember those?
And the best is that a study came out several years ago showing that pre-event stretching has zero benefit in preventing sports injuries. Sigh. Yes, tell that to the PE teachers. For more on why stretching is a poor warm-up, please read this article.
Stretching is best when adopted as a daily routine. Because it is an eccentric contraction, it takes strength along with flexibility to stretch, so it will require energy. You will sweat, too–probably why some people consider it a good warm-up. But frankly, cold stretching could actually lead to injury–something not uncommonly seen in my chiropractic office. So I actually think stretching warrants a warm-up. Sure, yoga classes start with some light stretching and movement to warm-up–sun-salutations and such–but understand that most classes ease you into the full-on stretches. I’d advise you do the same.
If, however, you are looking for a quick warm-up before a sporting event, try jogging in place. There are many variations, and I’d suggest checking out this article for a great picture showing how. Light jogging can also be a good warm-up, but leave the sprint for the end of the warm-up. Make sure your blood is flowing nicely before running vigorously–again, you want to decrease your injury risk.
Stretching is exercise, plain and simple. I believe that if you would have time for only one exercise, it should be some form of stretching. Stretching brings flexibility, strength, balance, and if done right, even cardiovascular benefits.
So, in my book, stretching is a lifestyle. I do it every day and I recommend that for everybody. Can you use it to warm-up? Sure, but I’d just as soon jog in place. And I warm-up a bit before doing any serious stretching, anyway. It’s your call on the warm-up; but for overall health and fitness, stretching is your best bet.