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The Exercise Mistake You Make Before You Take a Single Step

Posted Mar 16 2010 10:00am

Exercise MistakeIt’s an annual rite of spring.

Every year as the calendar thaws away the last of the winter chill and the crocuses come into bloom, exercisers emerge once again into the open air.

They run. They walk. They jog.

From the weight-loss walkers to the weekend warriors, everyone comes to chase down the elusive prospect of good health, one step at a time.

They have something else in common, too.

Before they take a single step, almost every last one has made the same mistake. It’s a mistake that, at best, will hinder their workouts. At worst, it could set them up for serious injury.

Talk about getting off on the wrong foot.

So what are they doing wrong?

Would you believe that it’s something as simple as stretching?

Warming Up to the Subject

Nowadays stretching comes before exercise as predictably and reliably as “A” before “B,” one before two, two before three. We are told to stretch first in order to prevent injuries.

Truth is, stretching — at least, stretching the way most people do it — can actually cause injuries. It’s one of the great myths of modern exercise science.

Last time I told you all about how to treat sprains and strains. One of the leading causes of those injuries is warming up improperly.

You see, warming up isn’t just a figure of speech. It literally raises the temperature of your body. That’s important because a relatively small increase in body temperature produces many significant physiological changes. For example:

  • Increased blood flow. Warming up brings more blood to your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. More blood means more oxygen, more nutrients, and more regular trash service. That means you can work harder and longer after warming up.

  • Better flexibility. You’ve seen this difference in real life. Imagine a rubber band: warm bands stretch, cold ones snap. That’s no less true of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. All of them become more flexible (and less injury-prone) after warming up.

  • More energy. As a general rule, chemical reactions go faster at higher temperatures. Metabolism is nothing more than a sequence of chemical reactions. Warming up speeds up your metabolism to provide more energy for exercise.

  • Better information. Nerve signals travel faster when you’re warmer. (That’s why you use ice to dull pain.) Not only that, but your nervous system receptors actually become more sensitive when they’re warm, fine-tuning your senses.

Collectively, these changes serve to prepare the body for exercise. They also greatly reduce your risk of injury.

So what’s the problem?

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Stretching: The Truth

Since grade-school P.E., we’ve all been taught to associate stretching and warming up. Warming up is good for you. It does prevent injuries. But stretching and warming up are not the same thing.

There are three basic types of stretching:

  • Static stretching. This is what most people do. You stretch to the point of slight discomfort and you hold it for 20 to 30 seconds.

  • Ballistic stretching. This is what you sometimes see athletes do when they warm up with repetitive bouncing movements. It’s very dangerous and can easily cause injury. You should avoid this one like the plague.

  • Dynamic stretching. This is what you should be doing. We’ll come back to this one.

Static stretching before exercise does not increase blood flow. It doesn’t improve flexibility. It doesn’t speed up metabolism. And it doesn’t jump-start the nervous system.

In fact, it may actually work against you. Studies have shown that athletes who engage in static stretching before exercise generate up to 30% less force from their leg muscles. That effect persists for up to half an hour. You’d be better off doing no stretching at all.

But how can that be?

It’s because your body is an intelligent, adaptive machine. It pretty much knows where its elastic limits are. And it has no interest in letting you hurt yourself.

So if you start to strain your muscles, tendons, and ligaments the way you do by static stretching, those fibers respond by actually becoming less flexible. Your body tries to make it harder for you to reach those limits.

Ordinarily that’d be great. But right before you exercise, that’s a recipe for disaster.

You have to find a way to work with your body instead.

Prevent Injuries by Stretching the Right Way

So how do you do that? With dynamic stretching.

Dynamic stretching usually involves movements that simulate whatever you’re about to do. For example, if you’re about to go for a run, then you might start with a slow, exaggerated stride.

What you want to do is activate the muscles, tendons, and ligaments you’re about to use. The way you do that is by using them — slowly at first, then steadily increasing your pace. You ease into your exercise to give your body a chance to catch up.

You never hold any position. Stasis does not lead naturally to motion.

Instead, start at about 40% of your capacity and work your way up from there. By alternating stretches and contractions in a normal sequence, you cue your body to get ready to work.

And by imitating the exercise you are about to do, you let your body know what kind of work it needs to get ready for. That means the best preparation for sprinting is jogging. The best preparation for jogging is walking. The best preparation for walking is slow walking.

It kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

It follows that the worst preparation you can do is standing still, holding an unnatural stretch. You don’t increase your flexibility that way. All you do is increase your tolerance for the discomfort of the stretch.

Research supports this idea of dynamic stretching before exercise. It makes weight lifters stronger. It makes sprinters faster. It makes soccer players more agile.

In short, dynamic stretching improves sport-specific performance because it teaches your body to work with you rather than against you.

Right Place, Wrong Time

The best way to warm up is with dynamic stretching. However, that doesn’t mean that static stretching is worthless. It just means it’s the wrong way to warm up.

After you finish working out, static stretching is great. Once your muscles are already warm, static stretching can challenge them in a new way. Regular stretching will improve your flexibility over time.

That added flexibility will serve you well in your workouts and in your everyday life.

Static stretching is valuable. It’s just not the right way to warm up.

The moral of the story is this: To improve flexibility, stretch after exercising. To prevent injuries, warm up before exercising. Everything in its right place, at the right time.

To Your Health,

Michael Noltemeyer
Managing Editor
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