THE SCIENCE OF THE STRETCH

From our earliest experiences in gym class, we’ve all been told to warm up and stretch before we exercise or train. True, warming up and stretching are important parts of any exercise session; the key is knowing when to perform them, and in what order. Stretching before workouts has been standard advice from fitness experts for decades. The theory has been that stretching loosened muscles and “prepared” them for the strenuous activity ahead. In recent years, research has begun to suggest that although muscles do need preparation, stretching is not the way to make it happen. A warm-up helps your body prepare itself for exercise and reduces the chance of injury. Performing a rhythmic, low-intensity version of the same exercise you plan to engage in later is also a great idea. This activity raises the heart rate, increases circulation, and raises muscle temperature gradually. If you have friends who like to practice forms before class, for example, you might want to join them; done slowly, the practice not only mentally focuses you, but it is a logical way to “teach” the muscles what they will be doing next.

Stretching is best done once the muscles are already warm. The stretch helps to relax tight muscle fibers, which have shortened with the repeated contractions of exercise. The static stretch, or a stretch that you hold without bouncing, is necessary because the muscles resist your attempt to lengthen them initially. As you hold the stretch, the muscles become accustomed to the new length and begin to relax. Some experts note that such stretching can be done after your warm-up activity, while others strongly recommend that stretches only be done after the cool-down at the end of the exercise session. The cool-down is similar activity to the warm-up; it helps to slow the heart rate and bring down the activity of the muscles

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