Stretches and Warm-Ups for Weight Training

"You should stretch." Weight trainers, exercisers, and athletes have been told that increasing flexibility makes exercise more effective and can help prevent injury or muscle pain. It is often recommended to include stretching in the warm-up and cool-down phases of exercise.

Over the years, the benefits were obvious. We forgot to study stretching scientifically to see if the benefits matched expectations.

Stretching is not necessarily the same as warming up or cooling down, although stretching can be part of these activities. And to complicate things a bit, there are different types of stretching: static, ballistic, and dynamic. Finally, the benefits of stretching can be considered in three phases:

  1. Immediately before exercise
  2. Immediately after exercise
  3. As part of a regular daily program

The perceived benefits of stretching

Stretching has been promoted to have several benefits, including increasing or maintaining flexibility for daily living or performance functionality and preventing injury during sports and exercise activities. It is also believed to increase athletic performance and compensate for muscle pain after exercise.

Flexibility

We all need some flexibility to carry out daily tasks. Therefore, we must do exercises that maintain or increase our natural flexibility, within a reasonable range of motion (without pushing the muscle too far beyond its current level of flexibility, which can be detrimental). Movement and physical activity in general help us maintain flexibility in old age. Specific stretching routines can help with this process.

Sports injury prevention

Surprisingly, research has confirmed few benefits of stretching before or after physical activity. This may be because these topics are difficult to study or it may be that the benefits, once accepted, are absent or not as strong as previously thought.

Some research even suggests that overstretching can be detrimental to performance and safety. However, at least one study has found that while exercise-based stretching may be of no value, regular daily stretching can be beneficial for flexibility and injury prevention.

In sports where flexibility is an integral part of performance requirements, such as gymnastics and some dance forms, regular stretching is necessary to increase flexibility. Players of sports in which muscles and tendons are suddenly and greatly stretched and shortened, such as soccer and basketball, may also benefit from regular stretching, although this is not universally accepted.

Sports performance

For some activities, the evidence is relatively strong that stretching before an event actually impairs performance. For strength sports like running and weight lifting, static stretching before competition or training can affect your ability to use explosive force.

Stretching causes the muscles to lose the energy stored in the elastic component of the muscle or it alters the nervous system so that it does not send signals to the muscles as effectively for this activity. This is a field of study in which much remains to be learned.

Prevention of muscle pain

When you feel pain after an exercise session, this is called Delayed Onset Muscle Pain or DMIT. Stretching before or after exercise has long been recommended as a way to reduce or prevent pain. However, a review of stretching studies found no benefit of stretching for preventing muscle pain.

A warm-up is different and has more positive effects. A warm-up is a light exercise designed to flush the blood and lubricating fluid in the joints before training. A warm-up can include a light jog, lifting light weights, or riding a bike for 10-15 minutes. A warm-up may include stretching, although evidence suggests this is of little value. There is limited evidence that warming up helps prevent muscle pain.

You may find that warming up offers a helpful psychological approach to exercise. This can put you in the right frame of mind for exercising, which can increase the benefits of the practice.

How to warm up and stretch

These are general recommendations. Certain sports and activities may require additional specialized activities.

Heating

A non-stretching warm-up is probably all you need before most workouts and competitive events.

  • Time: warm up for about 10 minutes before starting your exercise session.
  • Activity: Choose a warm-up activity similar to your main activity, but with a lower intensity. You can walk briskly before running or do several light repetitions of the strength training exercise you are about to perform.

Extension

Stretching before a workout or event is unlikely to be beneficial and can affect performance in some sports and activities, including weight lifting. A warm-up should be enough.

  • Timing: Stretching after an event is unlikely to confer benefits related to this exercise session, but can be beneficial when included in a regular daily stretching program. Stretching is easier when the muscles are already warmed up from exercise.
  • Activity: Try to stretch all the major muscle groups. Hold each stretch for about 30 seconds at an intensity where the tension is noticeable but painless. Do each stretch twice. Breathe normally (don't hold your breath).

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