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Stretching has certain benefits, but it also has its detractors. For many years, it was accepted as part of warming up for a workout. More recently, researchers have come to mixed conclusions. Proponents say that stretching improves athletic performance, while others say it does you little if any good at all.
Stretching increases your flexibility, which may improve your performance by allowing your joints move more fully and effectively while you exercise, thus lowering your risk of injury. Stretching also increases blood flow to the muscle, but specific stretches for your activity or sport may better help you to avoid injury. Beginning slowly and gently and building speed and intensity can help increase your flexibility in specific movements.
While strength training with weights will gradually shorten a muscle and increase its mass, stretching will lengthen it and reduce its tendency to stiffen and bulk up. You can stretch anytime and anywhere, but stretching after exercise is generally more beneficial than doing it before exercise, especially intense activity, according to the Mayo Clinic. Light walking, jogging and moving your major muscle groups beforehand is recommended.
A static stretch, which involves stretching a muscle at a given length for a given period of time, followed by exercising, may actually cause injury during exercise, according to Dawson Kidgell, professor of neurophysiology at Deakin University in Australia. Stretching cold muscles may cause injury, prolonging a stretch may cause pain and stretching an excessively flexible joint may be ill-advised. Some researchers argue that there is no point in holding a stretch for more than 30 seconds and that stretching is of little use in preventing soreness; it may only slightly reduce soreness from exercise and increase your chances of injury.
Tailor your stretching to your individual needs, and do it regularly. The requirements of a professional athlete, which depend on full range of motion of specific joints, are different from those of a weekend warrior. The type of stretching you do is more important than whether you should stretch at all, according to Kidgell. Before stretching, do a light warmup, such as a bit of walking, jogging, rotating your arms and swinging your legs back and forth.