Should You Stretch Before Exercise?

If there's one thing that takes away from the virtuous inner glow of having done a good exercise workout, it's the humiliation of feeling so stiff and sore the next day you can barely move.

The prospect of sore muscles – or worse, injuries – is enough to put many people off getting active and for years we heard the way to avoid this was to do some stretching first.

The trouble is most of us find it hard enough to find time to exercise, let alone fit in a stretching session beforehand.

So how important is it to stretch before getting active?

In recent years, studies have made this pretty clear, and the answer is... it’s not that important at all.

If you're aiming to avoid sore muscles and injuries, there seems to be little if any gain from stretching. But regular stretching might make you more flexible, which could help performance in certain sports.

Stretch your patience?

Three large high quality studies looking into stretching's effects on exercise.

Each of them looked at more than 1000 subjects and found little or no reduction in injury risk from exercise among those who rigorously stretched.

The largest of the three studies was done with scientists in Norway, where the common wisdom was always to stretch after exercise. In Australia, most advice said to do it before. So the study looked at the combined effect of stretching both before and after.

While there was no overall reduction in injury risk seen, there was "a hint" of an effect on reducing injuries like ligament tears, muscle tears, strains and sprains.

But the study's design means it's hard to know if that effect was real. If stretching does cut your odds of one of these types of injuries, it's by only a very small amount. At best, a person would need to stretch for on average about five or six years to have one muscle tear or related injury prevented the studies had found.

To stretch or not to stretch?

So does the research mean stretching is a waste of time? It depends on your point of view.

We know a single stretch makes muscles and probably other structures like tendons and ligaments more flexible but for a short period – probably only a matter of minutes.

But done regularly, it's feasible stretching may induce growth of tissues that leads to a more long-term increase in flexibility. This is likely to be helpful in certain sports like gymnastics, ballet, hurdles or high jumping. And to achieve it, you can probably stretch before or after exercise or any time you like.

For sports requiring big muscle forces and lots of power – such as sprinting or power lifting – however, there's a "fairly strong belief" among sports scientists any extra flexibility from stretching might actually decrease performance.

People who like to stretch can rest assured that there is some evidence it makes a little bit of difference to soreness and there's a possibility it might make a tiny difference to injury risk.

But for those who don't like stretching, you’re not missing out on a big injury risk reduction and you’re not missing out on a big reduction in soreness.

So at the end of the day, just make sure you are warming up and actually doing exercise. That will make the greatest difference at the end of the day.