Chances are you've been told many different things about stretching over the years that seem totally contradictory. Part of the issue is that stretching isn't one-size-fits-all: There are different types of stretches, and what's best for you largely depends on your body and your specific goals.
Still, a lot of confusion persists. To help clear it up, we took a look at the science and consulted Luke Lombardo, a running coach and personal trainer. Read on as we set the record straight by debunking seven common myths.
1/ You should always stretch before you start your workout
Generally speaking, it's best to stretch while warming up your muscles, so it's safer to go for a light jog or do some star jumps before engaging in static stretching - the kind of stretches you do while your body is at rest. "If you have too intense of a stretch while your body isn't warm, you could be more likely to pull a muscle," says Lombardo.
The exception to this rule is that you could skip static stretching altogether and instead opt for dynamic stretching - meaning you're using momentum or movement while stretching at the same time. This kind of stretching is essentially a stretch/warm-up combo, and is best for runners. The choice is really yours.
2/ Everyone should do the same kind of stretching
Stretching routines vary, and they should. Research has found that while static stretching may be sufficient for individuals looking to have a bit more flexibility for exercise such as gymnastics, dance or even spin, dynamic stretching is better for those doing exercise that involves running or jumping. Age and gender play a role, too. Older adults may benefit from holding stretches longer. And, according to a study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, "men and older adults under 65 years respond better to contract-relax stretching, while women and older adults over 65 benefit more from static stretching." When in doubt, ask a personal trainer or physiotherapist for guidance.
3/ Stretching will keep you from getting injured
This one is really a half-myth. Many experts, including Lombardo, say that stretching does offer some degree of protection. "When done correctly, stretching can help reduce your likelihood of injuries because it increases blood flow to the muscles and increases joint range of motion." But research has shown that people who stretch aren't any less likely to get injured compared to those who don't. Lombardo also notes that stretching before a workout won't eliminate the possibility that you might pull a muscle or sprain your ankle. Additionally, stretching won't help correct any muscle imbalances that may lead to injury, such as lazy glutes or quad dominance.
4/ Stretching will increase your performance
Another half-myth here. For most typical gym-goers and recreational athletes, dynamic stretching can loosen up the body. That might very well make it easier for you to perform certain exercises, movements or hold certain poses, says Lombardo. "It increases joint range of motion, which in turn can help your muscles be more efficient." The flip side is that competitive athletes might actually do worse if they stretch first: some research has found that certain types of stretching may impede some athletes, like sprinters, high jumpers or weight lifters, because they might end up overworking the muscles they need to perform at their absolute best. Worth bearing in mind before your next race.
5/ If you stretched before or during your workout, don't bother to stretch again after
If you're in a rush, you won't necessarily hurt yourself by skipping the stretch at the end of a workout. But if you have the time to fit it in, you should. "Stretching post-workout will reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, as well as increase blood circulation, which can help expedite the recovery process," explains Lombardo. That means you'll be able to workout again sooner.
After a workout your muscles are already warm at this point, so doing static stretches may help you reduce soreness and fatigue, says Lombardo. For example, you may want to hold a calf stretch or hamstring stretch after going for a run.
6/ You can't over-stretch
Absolutely false. If you stretch a tight muscle too intensely, you can end up straining or pulling it. "It is important to slowly begin a stretch and focus on lightly lengthening into the stretch during an exhale," says Lombardo. Don't force anything that doesn't feel right or that causes you pain.
7/ Stretching and foam rolling are the same
Unlike stretching, foam rolling gives your muscles a myofascial release, so you can think of it as giving yourself a deep tissue massage. "Foam rolling can better break down scar tissue in your body, which will speed up the body's recovery process," says Lombardo. "It can be argued that foam rolling has all of the benefits of stretching and more as it gets deep into your fascia, but stretching will lead to greater flexibility." Translation: If you have the time to do both, you should!