Stretches and Warm-Ups for Weight Training

Woman stretching leg muscles in a gym
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“You must stretch.” Weight trainers, exercisers, and athletes have been told that increasing flexibility makes exercise more efficient and may help prevent injury or muscle soreness. Stretching is often recommended to be included in a warm-up and cool-down phases of exercise.

Over the years, the benefits were taken for granted. We forgot to study stretching in a scientific manner to see whether the benefits stacked up to expectation.

Stretching is not necessarily the same as warming up or cooling down, although stretching may be part of these activities. And to make matters a little more complicated, there are different types of stretching—static, ballistic and dynamic. Finally, the benefits of stretching can be considered in three phases:

  1. Immediately before exercise
  2. Immediately after exercise
  3. As part of a regular daily program

The Perceived Benefits of Stretching

Stretching has been promoted as having several benefits, including increasing or maintain flexibility for day-to-day or performance functionality and preventing injury during sports and exercise activity. It's also often believed to increase performance in sport and offset muscle soreness after exercise.

Flexibility

We all need a certain amount of flexibility to perform everyday tasks. So we should do exercises that maintain or enhance our natural flexibility, within a reasonable range of motion (not straining to push the muscle far beyond the current level of flexibility, which could be harmful). Movement and physical activity, in general, helps us maintain flexibility into older age. Specific stretching routines may help in this process.

Sports Injury Prevention

Surprisingly, few benefits of stretching before or after physical activity have been confirmed by research. This may be because these matters are difficult to study or it could be that the benefits once accepted are either absent or not nearly as strong as previously thought.

Some research even suggests that too much stretching may be detrimental to performance and safety. However, at least one study found that although stretching based on exercise sessions may not be of value, regular daily stretching may be beneficial to flexibility and injury prevention.

In sports where flexibility is an integral part of the performance requirements, such as gymnastics and some forms of dance, regular stretching to increase flexibility is necessary. Players of sports in which muscles and tendons are stretched and shortened suddenly and powerfully, as in soccer and basketball, may also benefit from regular stretching, although this is not universally accepted.

Sports Performance

For some activities, the evidence is relatively strong that stretching before an event actually makes performance worse. For power sports like sprinting and weight lifting, static stretching before competition or training may affect your ability to use explosive power.

Either stretching causes the muscles to lose energy stored in the elastic component of muscle, or the nervous system is changed so that it does not send signals to the muscles as efficiently for such activity. This is a field of study in which there is still much to know.

Muscle Soreness Prevention

When you get sore after an exercise session, it is called delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. Stretching before or after exercise has long been recommended as a way to reduce or prevent soreness. However, a review of studies of stretching practices did not find any benefit from stretching for the prevention of muscle soreness.

Warming up different and does have more positive effects. A warm-up is a light exercise for the purpose of getting blood and joint lubricating fluid flowing before a workout. A warm-up may include light jogging, lifting some light weights, or cycling for 10 to 15 minutes. A warm-up may include stretching, although the evidence suggests this is of little value. Limited evidence exists that warming up helps prevent muscle soreness.

You may find that warming up provides a helpful psychological approach to exercise. It can get you in the right frame of mind to work out, which may add to the benefits of the practice.

How to Warm Up and Stretch

These are general recommendations. Certain sports and activities may require additional, specialized activities.

Warm-Ups

A warm-up without stretching is most likely all you need before most workouts and competitive events.

  • Time: Perform a warm-up for about 10 minutes before you start your exercise session.
  • Activity: Choose a warm-up activity similar to your main activity but at a lower intensity. You might walk briskly before a run, or perform several light repetitions of the strength-training exercise you are about to do.

Stretching

Stretching before a workout or an event is unlikely to be of benefit and may impair performance for some sports and activities including weightlifting. A warm-up should be sufficient.

  • Timing: Stretching after an event is unlikely to confer benefit related to that exercise session, but may be advantageous when included in a regular daily stretching program. Stretching is easier when your muscles are already warmed up from exercise.
  • Activity: Aim to stretch all the major muscle groups. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds at an intensity where the tension is noticeable, but there is no pain. Do each stretch twice. Breathe normally (don't hold your breath).
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Article Sources
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  2. Shrier I. Does stretching improve performance? A systematic and critical review of the literatureClin J Sport Med. 2004;14(5):267-73. doi:10.1097/00042752-200409000-00004

  3. Thacker SB, Gilchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey CD Jr. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: a systematic review of the literature. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2004 Mar;36(3):371-8. doi:10.1249/01.mss.0000117134.83018.f7

  4. Fradkin AJ, Gabbe BJ, Cameron PA. Does warming up prevent injury in sport? The evidence from randomised controlled trials. J Sci Med Sport. 2006;9(3):214-20. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.03.026

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