Dear Dr. Messerly: Should I stretch before exercise?

To stretch or not to stretch? That is the new controversial question in the athletic world.

Actually, athletes and healthcare providers alike believe that stretching does provide benefits. The real questions that we need to ask are, “Which stretches should I do?” and “When should I do them?”

There are two basic types of stretches: static stretches and dynamic stretches.

Static stretches are stretches that hold the position of a muscle or joint for 30 seconds or more while allowing the body to relax into the stretch. Holding the position for 30 to 60 seconds can increase tissue flexibility.

Since you relax into static stretches, they are better suited to a cool-down or flexibility program. They may not be the best choice for a warm-up exercise if you are playing a competitive sport or participating in a high-energy activity.

Several studies show that static stretching before weight lifting and sprinting may hinder performance. In situations like these, a dynamic stretch may be a better fit.

Dynamic movement stretches do not hold muscles in a position but move the muscles through motions that increase and challenge each muscle’s range of motion.

Dynamic stretches warm and prepare the joints, muscles, and ligaments for action. Warming up and stretching with dynamic stretches will reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

Two examples of dynamic stretches are leg and arm swings

Leg swings are dynamic stretches that flex and extend the leg muscles. Stand arm’s length from the wall with your right shoulder perpendicular to the wall. Put your right hand on the wall for balance and shift your weight to your left leg. With a controlled motion, swing your right leg forward and back 6 to 12 times. You should not go for speed, but try to reach your leg a bit higher each time. Repeat on the other side.

Arm swings are dynamic stretches that warm and stretch the arms, chest, upper back, and shoulders. Stand tall with a straight back. Feet should be shoulder-distance apart. Engage your core and bend your knees slightly. In a controlled fluid movement, swing
both arms overhead, forward, down and back. Repeat 6 to 10 times.

If you are preparing for an exercise or a sporting event, a dynamic stretch will be of more benefit to you.

When you think about stretching, think about what you want to accomplish. If your back aches from sitting in a chair and you want release tightness, a static stretch can help.

Back-handed arm press can release tension in your back. Stand with a straight back next to the wall, bend your elbows and lift your arms to shoulder level with palms facing outward above your head. Press into the wall for 30 seconds. This exercise helps realign your posture and relieve tension in your back.

Whichever stretch you choose, remember to warm up first. Stretching cold muscles could result in injury.

For more information on the best stretches for your activity, consider consulting a sports medicine or rehabilitation specialist.