Should You Stretch After Working Out?

Stretching has recently become a point of contention in the fitness industry. Should I stretch before a workout? After a workout? Is static stretching detrimental to muscle growth? Is stretching even necessary?

Ideally, you should stretch and foam-roll within the hour after your workout. If you are planning on getting in your car to go back home, a few quick stretches before you leave would be beneficial.

Stretching after a workout can help improve muscle flexibility and reduce muscle tension. Doing so will help keep the muscles from tightening up during exercise. People tend to be more flexible after exercising because their joints and muscles have increased.

Stretching can be done in many different ways depending on your physical goals and the type of workouts you will be performing.

We will look at the benefits of post-workout stretching, how long you should wait to stretch after a workout, and do a quick comparison of pre and post-workout stretching.

Benefits of Stretching After a Workout

There are countless types of stretching you can incorporate into your daily routine. There is dynamic stretching, static, ballistic, isometric, functional, isolated, and the list goes on. Today I want to discuss my two favorite styles of stretching, static and dynamic.

When finishing a workout your muscles have been in an almost constant state of contraction. As your muscles fight against any kind of resistance, whether it’s bands, free weights, or machine resistance, they are concentrically and eccentrically contracting, causing microscopic tears deep within the fibers.

An increase in blood flow is necessary for optimal recovery of these tears within the muscle. One of the clear benefits when it comes to post-workout stretching is the increase in blood flow to each individual muscle as it is being stretched.

While this increase in blood flow helps repair the muscles during their recovery, this will also help with soreness and specifically DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

This Study of The Effectiveness of Post-Workout Stretching on ROM and DOMS is a fantastically detailed analysis of the effects of post-workout stretching in relation to short-term and delayed onset muscle soreness as well as many other perceived positive and negative effects stretching has on your body.

When you perform a high-intensity workout your body will also go into an anaerobic mode, pulling glucose stores to sustain the necessary energy your body needs to keep going. Your body will then create lactate to break down the glucose leaving you with a lactic acid build-up within the muscle.

As you stretch and lengthen the muscles post-workout, the lactic acid build-up is then released much more efficiently from the muscle as opposed to staying concentrated in one single area causing soreness.

Finally, the most obvious benefit of a post-workout stretch is overall flexibility and range of motion (ROM). When participating in any kind of fitness activity, a full and efficient range of motion is critical. As a corrective exercise specialist, this is what I always try to emphasize to my clients. Inefficient ROM and a lack of flexibility can cause musculoskeletal imbalances, poor posture, and even injury.

How Long After a Workout to Stretch

When working with clients I try to go into a dynamic stretch routine as quickly as possible. However, if you have been participating in a HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) workout or any kind of vigorous training, you want to take time for your heart rate to decrease before getting into any kind of static stretching.

Prior to static stretching, dynamic or any kind of active stretching will allow your heart rate to gradually decrease, but try to focus on keeping your head above your heart to keep you from getting dizzy or possibly passing out.

For those of you that are going into a post-workout stretch after a moderate or basic workout that doesn’t have your heart rate beating through the roof, it is best to go straight to a dynamic stretch while your muscles are still warm after your workout.

As we discussed in the benefits of a post-workout stretch, you always want to try to stretch while your muscles are warm and continue to increase blood flow for optimal recovery.

I chose dynamic stretching immediately following a workout to also allow your muscles to begin to recover on their own before getting into continuously elongating them with static stretches.

Sometimes it is even beneficial to get a moderate to fast-paced walk on a treadmill after a workout to really get the blood flowing. This can take place of dynamic stretching if you would like, so long as it is followed up with 15-20 minutes of static stretching.

Stretching Before vs After a Workout

Stretching prior to a workout is all about opening up your joints and muscles, allowing them to reach their full range of motion during your workout. Studies have shown that it is more beneficial to participate in gradual warm-ups prior to working out rather than periods of elongated static stretches.

This Harvard Study backs up this theory stating that “(Static) stretching a cold, tight muscle could lead to injury. Instead, try a brief warm-up to get the blood flowing to your major muscle groups and loosen your joints.”

In my routines pre-workout stretching is very similar to post-workout stretching, however, I try to focus a pre-workout stretch routine on increasing blood flow through calisthenics or a light jog on a treadmill followed by brief dynamic stretches.

Always ask your trainer what they recommend as each person is different, but due to the extensive research I have done on the subject, I like to avoid static stretching until the post-workout routine.

Calisthenics is an extremely efficient way for you to get the blood flowing throughout your body while increasing your ROM. Beginning with full-body calisthenics such as jumping jacks or even jumping rope can really get the blood circulating while preparing your body for your workout.

Following these movements with pushups on chest day or wall ball squats on leg day is a very effective way to warm up specific muscle groups and prepare them for the strain they will undergo during your workout.

Adversely, post-workout stretches will differ from pre-workout stretches simply because we are recovering our muscles as opposed to preparing our muscles.

Why do you think we call it a “warm-up” and a “cool down”? As we jump on the treadmill for a jog or do jumping jacks and pushups, we are increasing our heart rate and blood flow, thus “warming up” our bodies and preparing them for optimal function.

As we “cool down” we are slowly allowing our heart rate to drop through dynamic stretches and then move into upright static stretching, ending with seating, supine, or prone static stretching.

Who Should Stretch After Working Out

Stretching prior to and after a workout is beneficial to everyone depending on your physical status. It is always recommended to visit a doctor prior to taking on any workout regimen, especially for those with underlying health issues.

If you are cleared by a health professional and want to get into a fitness routine, or already have a regular routine, stretching should be a part of your daily focus before and after your workout.

Everyone is different and each individual has different needs that need to be met to optimize their range of motion and post-workout recovery.

Talk to a personal trainer, physical therapist, or corrective exercise specialist if you are unsure of what kind of warm-ups and cool-downs you should be participating in.

There is a limitless number of stretches (whether dynamic, static, isometric, calisthenics, or any other form) that you can perform to optimize your workout to get the best, and safest, results.

Who Should Not Stretch After Working Out

With the overwhelming number of styles and benefits of stretching it is hard to specify any single person that should not stretch, however, there are always specific circumstances that people should watch out for before they begin stretching.

Always refer to your doctor or physical therapist before engaging in a regular stretching or workout routine. Anyone that has experienced a recent injury within days or hours prior to stretching you are probably better off waiting to stretch.

If you are a person suffering from continuous back spasms or knots stretching could potentially make the pain or spasms worse. If you visit a doctor or personal trainer, they will sometimes recommend foam rolling as an effective technique to relieve muscular knots.

Finally, if you are a person that has just gone through any type of surgery, stretching is probably an activity that you should stay away from until you have been cleared by your doctor. Physical therapists are professionally trained to work with patients post-surgery on movements such as stretching.