February 5, 2008

Stretching Before or After Exercise? Misconceptions Explained

Stretching Before or After Exercise? Misconceptions Explained - K-State expert discusses stretching and exercise.

If you want to look great for the summer swimsuit season, now is a good time to start an exercise program. According to a Kansas State University fitness expert, it is important to incorporate stretching into your workout.

"A well-rounded fitness program includes stretching," said Craig Harms, assistant professor of kinesiology. "A lot of the misconception with stretching is when to stretch, because you really shouldn't stretch before exercise when muscles are cold, but you should stretch a warm muscle.

"It's best to stretch a warm muscle because when problems happen with injuries and low back pain, it generally happens when people stretch when their muscles are cold or they aren't warmed up," he said. "So the best time to stretch is after exercise, or at least 10 minutes following a period of warm-up exercises giving the muscles a chance to heat up and become more flexible."

Harms recommends devoting 10 minutes daily to stretching as a general guideline. He says another misconception with stretching results from people not stretching correctly.

"A stretch should be held at least 20 seconds or longer, and notoriously you'll see people holding a stretch for a couple seconds and then moving on to the next activity," Harms said. "Well they aren't really doing that muscle any justice, and you really need to hold it for an extended period of time.

"And the other misconception is that it has to hurt, and ideally a stretch should be held to the point of pain and then back off," he said. "If it hurts while you're stretching, then you're stretching too much, so stretch to that point and then back off a little bit."

Harms says people should keep in mind that stretches shouldn't be bounced. A static stretch that is held continuously for a period of time is best. Also, it's important to recognize that all people have different degrees of flexibility, so don't try to keep up with the person at the gym next to you. Flexibility should be approached as an individual activity.

"As fitness professionals we all understand how important stretching really is," Harms said. "Whether or not it actually prevents the injury during the activity itself is a sort of controversy, but we do know that stretching is very important to increase performance, to relieve tension, to improve circulation -- all aspects that are obviously very important to all of us."

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