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There is a right and a wrong way to stretch

Dr. Steven Heidinger writes about stretching before exercising
Wellness Column by Dr. Steven Heidinger

I suspect one of the biggest worries for a newbie at the gym, or a reason for why some never even go to a gym, is the fear that you may look like you don’t know what you are doing. 

Seasoned exercisers make the gym look like it’s their second home. Looking like you know what you’re doing begins even before you lift your first weight. The most important part of your gym experience happened between the time you put on your Lululemons and your first set at the squat rack.

How you warm up and stretch prior to your workout will affect the quality of your workout and will really show others that you know a thing or two about exercising. Hopefully when you are at the gym, you are not seen doing any of these:

Stretching your pectoral muscles (chest) against a wall before performing a bench press,

Stretching your quad muscle (front of your thigh) by bringing your heel to your butt before you do a squat, or

Pulling your arm across your chest to stretch your deltoid muscle before doing a shoulder set.

These types of activities are called “static stretches” and were once considered to be the gold standard of a pre-weight training ritual. Research has been telling us for a number of years now that this is the wrong way to prepare for weight training exercises.

Static stretching has been defined as holding a muscle in a lengthened position that creates an uncomfortable “stretching sensation,” for a prescribed period of time (often 10 to 15 seconds). For the last 15 years, research has been recommending against this type of pre-workout warmup. 

Stretching in this fashion has been shown to decrease blood flow and limit oxygen availability to the muscle. This can weaken the muscle and make it more susceptible to injury when performing the exercise immediately after the stretch. There is some research identifying that muscle damage can occur from the stretch itself. If you are looking to achieve “PB’s” (personal bests), static stretching will not get you there.

This type of stretching is not recommended prior to running either as it negatively effects the speed of muscle contractions.

What is the correct way to stretch before a workout? Well, think about what is the opposite of “static”? It is “dynamic.” 

Dynamic stretching is a thing and it is what seasoned gym people do prior to hitting the weights. Instead of staying still during a stretch, dynamic stretching means you stay mobile while pushing the limits of your range of motion. The goals of warming up is to increase blood flow to the muscle group you are about to use, improve nerve input to muscle fibres, and create a healthy biochemical environment for muscle contraction. Dynamic stretching allows for all this to happen.

For all of those looking to make a good first impression at the gym, learning how to warm up would be a good start.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.