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Stretching exercises

Stretching the truth: stretching exercises before or after?

In every sport, stretching exercises are of the utmost importance to maintaining peak form heading into training and competition. Good stretching exercises improve both durability and flexibility, giving peace of mind that you won’t encounter problems when working to the maximum.

While stretching exercises rarely bear little resemblance to what is to follow during a workout or race, that is not the case after a training session or competition are over. Athletes' muscles are often fatigued and non-resilient after a strenuous training session or workout ends. At that point, stretching is a fine way to transform a hypercontracted, non-elastic, fatigued, and non-responsive muscle into a relaxed collection of fibres which can then comfortably adapt to the more passive activities which follow the training session - and recover nicely before the next muscle trauma (i. e., workout) takes place.

Unfortunately, no one in the scientific community has taken a closer look at the finding that stretching exercises may be better empoyed after a workout than before. However, a study carried out in 1986 does shed some light on the issue. In that investigation, researchers at Auburn University in the US followed 51 students who were engaged in a jogging programme. Prior to jogging, one group of students completed 15 minutes of stretching routines designed to unkink the shoulders, low back, hamstrings, and calf muscles (Achilles-tendon complex). The second group of joggers carried out the same routine - but only after a five-minute warm-up jog was completed.

After nine weeks, individuals who jogged before they carried out stretching exercises possessed significantly greater ankle flexibility, compared to the group which stretched without prior jogging. In fact, the average flexibility gain at the ankle was more than twice as great (in degrees) for the jog-stretchers, compared with the stretch-only people (no injury rates were assessed in this study; it was simply assumed that greater flexibility was a good thing). This Auburn work suggests that stretching is more effective - in terms of promoting flexibility - if it is preceded by exercise, instead of preceding exercise (at least at the ankle joint).

Those last six words - 'at least at the ankle joint' - actually turn out to be quite important, because in the Auburn study individuals who stretched without a pre-stretch warm-up actually achieved much better low-back flexibility, compared to those pre-stretch joggers. In fact, the individuals who jogged and then stretched their low-back muscles were unable to improve their low-back looseness at all!

Enhancements in hamstring flexibility were equal between the groups, but jogging and then stretching seemed to be superior to just stretching at making shoulder muscles more jelly-like; the jog-stretch plan increased shoulder range of motion about 60-per cent more than the simple stretching procedure. This leaves us with the prospect that pre-stretch exercise may be especially beneficial for some - but not all - muscle groups.

Whichever method you choose to follow, working the right stretching exercises into your routine to maintain supple and flexible muscles is absolutely imperative.

Stretching exercises