Should You Stretch Before or After Your Workout? Here’s What the Science Says.
You know you should stretch, but the how, when, and why is more nuanced than you might think.
By Kristine Thomason•
Love it or hate it, stretching is an essential part of your fitness routine. It can help increase flexibility, prevent injury, and improve overall performance. But when is the best optimal time to stretch? Before your workout? After? Both? To help suss out whether you should stretch before or after a workout, we spoke with Peloton instructor Callie Gullickson to get her expert take.
(Spoiler: The answer is a bit more complicated than you might imagine.)
Why is Stretching Beneficial?
Before diving into when you should stretch, let’s unpack the what and why. To start, stretching is (in the simplest terms) any form of movement that temporarily lengthens your muscles. There are also several different types of stretching to keep in mind—but two of the most common variations you’ll hear about are dynamic and static. Dynamic stretching involves actively moving through a full range of motion (ROM), such as walking lunges or leg swings. Whereas static stretching is holding a position that creates tension in the muscle, without movement (think: touching your toes). Both forms of stretching, among others, can be beneficial for different reasons.
Research suggests incorporating stretching into your regular routine may help improve flexibility—while some findings are mixed, experts say it may be due to neuro-reflexive mechanisms or an increase in stretch tolerance, among other explanations. Whatever factors are exactly at play, experts can agree that decreasing muscle tightness also improves joint ROM. "By dedicating five to ten minutes of your time to stretching each day, you will feel more agile, less stiff, and you'll be able to get more out of your workouts,” says Callie.
As some research suggests, increasing your ROM via regular stretching may help you recruit more muscles while exercising and improve overall performance. For example, improving flexibility in your hips could help you squat deeper, and therefore increase the number of muscles you activate in your lower body. It also means you can safely complete a wider range of exercises.
What’s more, “stretching is highly recommended in order to prevent injury, not only when working out but going through everyday life," Callie says. That’s because increased flexibility could lead to fewer chances of overstretching and tearing muscles during exercise (or when you’re, say, carrying groceries).
That said, there is some mixed research on this topic—and the mechanisms of this potential benefit are still a bit unclear. In fact, some experts suggest that stretching prior to strength training can actually hinder performance. That’s where proper timing becomes a bit more critical.
Is it Better to Stretch Before or After a Workout?
Overall, there’s some mixed messaging regarding whether it’s more important to stretch before or after exercise. Is one more important than the other? Do the benefits vary? Is it even necessary to include your fitness routine at all? According to Callie, the answer isn’t so simple—but she does have some advice.
Stretching Before a Workout
Before a workout, Callie recommends steering clear of static stretching, because doing so when your muscles are cold could potentially lead to injury. Plus, "taking part in static stretching before a workout could actually negatively impact your performance,” she says.
According to one research review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: “static stretching as part of a warm-up immediately prior to exercise has been shown detrimental to dynamometer-measured muscle strength and performance in running and jumping.” The paper goes on to explain this phenomenon has been termed “stretch-induced strength loss.” However, the specific cause is unclear.
Other research, however, says the impacts of static stretching pre-workout may depend on the type of exercise at hand. One study published in Frontiers in Physiology suggests that “short-duration” static stretching could be beneficial in recreational sports, due to the potential positive effect on flexibility and injury prevention. However, this research says it’s ill-advised for high-performance athletes, due to the negative effects on strength and power performance.
With that said, Callie is a fan of mobility or dynamic exercises prior to a strength workout. She says you want to get blood to the muscles, preparing them for the movements they're about to execute. Her favorites include: “hip cars, thoracic spine opener, and scapular protraction and retraction."
Trying out some dynamic moves before a cardio sesh—like an interval run or cycling class—could also help with your muscle activation and ROM. That’s because this type of stretching can help gradually increase blood flow and body temperature in your body—plus it increases circulation, motion, and muscle length in the specific areas you warm up. With your muscles and tendons elongated, it increases your ability to execute an exercise safely and reduces the risk of injury or tearing during movement. Not to mention, an active warmup primes your brain-body connection—which comes in handy for excelling in any workout.
However, while engaging in these types of dynamic stretches and exercises before a workout can be beneficial, they’re not necessarily essential. So if you’re really short on time and need to nix one stretching session from your routine, skip the pre-exercise stretch. And if you prefer to warm up with a few minutes of light cardio before a strength workout, that's a great option, as well. The most important thing is to listen to your body and respond accordingly.
Stretching After a Workout
After a workout can be a great time to stretch since your muscles are already warm—this is when static stretching comes back into play, as you’re more likely to reap the benefits. As Callie explains, post-sweat “you will be able to fall deeper into a stretch without stiffness or injury." This is the perfect opportunity to work on gradually building up ROM and overall flexibility.
"Some examples of stretching would be reaching forward in a straddle, a lying hamstring stretch, and a quadricep stretch on your stomach,” she says. In any case, aim to hold it for at least 15 to 20 seconds before releasing.
Still, as with pre-workout warm-ups, there’s some debate over the efficacy of post-exercise stretching to help mitigate soreness. One systematic review published in Frontiers of Physiology looked at 17,050 records and didn’t find conclusive evidence about the impact of stretching versus passive recovery. Whereas a study published some years prior suggests that stretching could lead to a reduction in sore muscles. Other research, still, indicates that since it’s likely not harmful, the choice to move through static stretching post-workout truly comes down to a matter of preference.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of nuance when it comes to stretching type and timing. As for whether it’s right for you, the answer comes down to a number of factors—from fitness goals to individual physical characteristics.
How to Build Stretching into Your Routine
Incorporating beneficial stretches into your workouts doesn’t need to be complex or overly time-consuming. Callie recommends starting small, such as cueing up a quick stretch from the Peloton App to get started. In fact, you can find guided stretches that are just minutes-long, such as this 5-minute lower body or this 5-minute upper body stretch. There are also a number of workout-specific stretch routines, for both pre- and post-workout (think: running, rowing, or cycling).
While these stretching routines may seem minimal, "I guarantee you will feel the difference right away,” says Callie, “not only after your workouts but your performance during them, as well.”
While the research is continuing to evolve and expand, most experts agree strategic stretching can be an integral part of any workout routine. When you stretch can also be somewhat subjective. There are potential benefits for stretching before or after your workout—but the best time to do so, according to Callie, is whenever you’ll actually stretch. The key is to listen to your body and do what feels best for you. Remember to start small and gradually build up—even if that means just a couple of minutes daily. Over time, you may start to notice the difference in your flexibility and range of motion, even in everyday life. And hey, maybe you’ll finally be able to deepen that squat or elongate your stride.