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Do This Before Exercise To Reduce Pain

Flexpower Fitness - Before you get moving, you might have some questions. We're here to do what we can to help.

Ever since grade school P.E. you’ve likely been told to stretch before an activity if you don’t want to hurt yourself. While we already know that the foods we eat and Flexpower creams and gels can help make us feel less sore after exercise, how much of what we do before we start moving actually results in pain prevention?

Let’s take a step back and look at what stretching actually does for you. Surprisingly, for something that seems so basic, science isn’t entirely sure of the answer here. It’s believed that stretching increases flexibility, and “trains” your nervous system to get used to the stretch in anticipation of more stretching (so you don’t tense up), but there’s more gray area here than you’d think.

In fact, Dr. Ian Shrier, a sports medicine clinician and Associate Professor at the Department of Family Medicine at McGill University, has done research showing that stretching actually makes your muscles weaker than not stretching. While that may be something an athlete might be concerned about, it really comes down to what your intention is: Performance or increased flexibility. As Dr. Shrier writes, “if your objective is to increase your range of motion so that you can more easily do the splits, and this is more beneficial than the small loss in force, then you should stretch.”

To help us sort through some of the confusion, we spoke to Certified Personal Trainer and writer Jenessa Connor, to offer some advice on what to do before a workout to help reduce the chance of debilitating soreness afterwards.

Stretching 101

A runner stretching his legs

To start, we don’t just “stretch.” We have to know what kind of stretch is best for us depending on our activity and objective. There are four basic types of stretches: 

  • Static stretch: This is when you stretch a muscle and hold it in one position for 30 seconds or so, usually at the point where it’s a little uncomfortable.
  • Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): Similar to a static stretch, a PNF is when you hold a stretch while contracting and relaxing the muscle.
  • Dynamic stretch: This is when you perform gentle repetitive movements, such as arm swings, where you gradually increase the range of motion (but always remains within the normal range of motion without exerting). 
  • Ballistic or bouncing stretches: This one involves using bouncing or jerking motions to increase your range of motion while you stretch.

“It’s always a good idea to stretch before a workout,” says Connor. “But I would opt for dynamic stretches over static stretches, as they raise your body temperature and prepare you for physical activity. So, instead of a seated hamstring stretch, you could do some standing hip swings or multi-planar lunges.”

While Connor agrees that some activities require their own unique stretches – a runner’s warm-up is different from a swimmer’s – she doesn’t think it’s a bad idea to keep it general. “I’d recommend taking a holistic approach and spending a little bit of time on each part of your body. After all, the muscular system is completely interconnected.”

Will Stretching Prevent Pain?

A tennis player stretching his back

The short answer is, probably not completely. While soreness may be inevitable, injury is not – and this is a huge key difference.

“If you’re starting a new workout, intensifying your current one, or introducing new movements, you’ll probably experience some soreness even if you spend time warming up and stretching beforehand,” says Connor. “But stretching and warming up before a workout can help prevent injuries.”

And remember – stretching to prevent injury can also cause injury if you’re not careful.

“You probably can’t spend too much time stretching or warming up – most of us have the opposite problem – but it’s possible to push yourself too hard while stretching, which can cause injuries,” explains Connor. “If you’re flinching, grimacing, or holding your breath, your nervous system is probably sending you a message to back off a little. Stretching should feel ‘comfortably challenging,’ not painful.”

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