How to stretch correctly before and after working out

Stand, bend forward, keep your legs straight and touch your toes.

Can’t touch the floor? Then start bouncing forcefully to reach your fingers down further.

That’s how we were taught to improve hamstring flexibility in primary school – through ballistic stretching, which involves jerky movements.

But is this method safe?

It depends on your age, what sports you are playing, and if genetics are in your favour.

When you’re a child, your body can be pushed to do amazing things as your skeletal structure has yet to reach its maximum growth.

During this phase, the bones grow quicker than muscles, and tendons can stretch to keep up.

In adults and as we age, our tendons become more rigid, and the muscles and joints that allow for easy mobility become stiff. Left alone, they become stiffer and reduce our range of motion.

Ligaments also tend to shorten and lose some flexibility, making joints feel stiff.

In fact, studies show that at least half of the age-related changes to muscles, bones and joints are caused by disuse.

Movement of the joint, and the associated stress of movement, helps keep the fluid moving.

For the ordinary, non-flexible person, ballistic stretching – where momentum is used dynamically to stretch a muscle group – is a no-no, as there is a risk of straining, pulling or tearing a muscle.

This kind of stretching can damage the soft tissues around the joints, and over time, lead to reduced flexibility and movement, countering the original intention.

Because ballistic stretches require extra force, they extend the muscles and tendons through a larger range of movement.

Muscles have inside sensors that can tell how far or hard they’re being stretched.

If a sensor feels too much tension, it will send a signal for the muscle to pull back to protect the joint from injury.

The sheer force of movement during a ballistic stretch bypasses these sensors, and allows the muscles to stretch more than they normally would.

For special groups like dancers, gymnasts, athletes, martial artists, football and sepaktakraw players, ballistic stretching can help increase their range of motion, which may be beneficial for their sport.

A taekwondo athlete may use ballistic stretching to kick higher.

How then should you stretch, you may ask, if you’re not supposed to bounce?

Again, it depends on what your purpose is: do you want to warm-up or cool down?

There are many types of stretches to help increase your flexibility, but most of them are either dynamic (meaning they involve motion) or static (involving no motion).

Dynamic stretching
If you’re just about to start your workout, it’s best to do dynamic stretching to prime your body for action.

In dynamic stretching, sport-specific movements are used to move the limbs gently through a greater range of motion.

It involves whole body movements and actively moves a joint, but stops before reaching its maximum range of motion. This is usually repeated eight to 12 times.

Doing some dynamic stretching every time you warm up for exercise can help optimise your performance and fast track your results.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re dancing in the living room, pumping iron in the gym, pounding the pavement or cycling up a hill, preparing your body for action boosts blood flow, activates the central nervous system and helps elevate your game.

One suggestion to prepare your body for exercise is to mimic your exercises with dynamic stretches.

So, if you’re going for a run, focus on dynamic stretches that target the same muscle groups activated when you run.

For example, marching with knees lifted high, brisk walking, light jogging, skipping, side steps, jumping jacks and shuffles are all great ways to warm up for your run.

You can also do leg swings, torso rotations, shoulder shrugs and arm circles.

Once your joints feel warm and loosened, you can begin increasing your speed.

A 2014 systematic review of 31 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that active warm-ups encompassing such exercises as sprints and plyometrics, can enhance power and strength performance.

Meanwhile, shorter, static stretching not only fails to provide such a boost, but may also reduce strength.

A meta-analysis of 32 studies on warming-up and performance in 2010 also found that doing an active warm-up before engaging in sports yields improved performance.

Scientists at Northwestern University in the United States had similar results in their 2011 study of 1,500 athletes.

They found that 20 minutes of strength, balance, plyometric and other dynamic stretching exercises before practice yielded a 65% reduction in gradual-onset injuries, a 56% reduction in acute non-contact injuries and a 66% reduction in non-contact ankle sprains.

Once you’re done with your workout, you need to stretch statically to reduce muscle soreness, bring down your body temperature and relax the muscles … a sort of saying thank you for the hard work.

Static stretching involves holding a position that places a particular muscle or muscle group and its related connective tissue in a maximally lengthened position.

The position should be held for 30 seconds up to a minute (like they do in yoga classes).

It’s a completely free and effective recovery tool.

You can do static stretches during non-exercise times as well, but avoid them when your muscles are cold. A cold muscle is an unyielding muscle.

Static stretches work to loosen the muscles, which is great as part of a cool-down, but not something you want before training, especially if you’re strength training or running.

Doing so indicates to your body that your workout is complete and that it can start the cool-down process – this is why it can hinder your performance.

Imagine doing a yoga class, followed by doing high intensity interval training (HIIT).

The relaxed muscles are ill-prepared for fast activity, and because they cannot contract fast enough (hey, they’re very happy to be in a holiday mood!), they go into shock mode and spasm or pull, causing pain and discomfort.

It’s one of my pet peeves when I see fitness events and gyms offering yoga classes (except for power yoga) right before cardio classes.

Another common mistake is to embark on static stretching immediately after your workout ends and when your heart is still racing.

When you apply the stretch too quickly and too hard, it can result in injury or greater tightness the next day.

Instead, allow you heart rate to slow down by walking around for five minutes post-exercise before doing cooling down stretches.

Stretching should not be painful. If you have stretched to the point of pain, ease off slightly.

Move into deeper positions gradually, allowing the muscle to acclimatise to its new length. Every time you stretch further, exhale.

If performed properly and daily, static stretching is an effective way to increase flexibility.

Generally, females are more flexible than males of similar age, though I’ve had many “springy” men in my classes. Men just have to work a little harder.

Flexibility also depends on factors such as ligaments, tendons, the joint capsule, the quantity and texture of connective tissue within the muscle, fat deposits, and skin thickness and tightness.

While dynamic and static stretching both play important roles in fitness, there are optimal times to use either one to maximise your performance and recovery.