Stretching: Is It Optional?

How important is it to stretch before and after working out? What if I’m just going for a hike? Do I still need to stretch?

– August 4, 2003

Updated 4/01/2005

Stretching should be part of any fitness program: It improves flexibility, lengthens muscle tissue, improves posture, and helps combat stress. But to reap these benefits, do it after your workout – when your muscles are warm and most elastic. Stretching when your muscles are “cold” (or tight) can lead to injuries.

Exercise physiologists advise that you warm up by doing a slower version of the activity you’re about to do. For example, if you’re going to run, you should walk and then jog to warm the muscles you’ll use for your run. If you’re going to hike, warm up by walking slowly on a less strenuous trail. If you’re going to do strength training, warm up for the specific lift by going through the motion using light weights or no weights at all. Think about the way professional athletes warm up – tennis players, for example, gently hit the ball back and forth across the net before the match begins.

When you do stretch, follow these rules:

  • Exhale as you stretch; inhale as you relax. (Breathing is an important aspect of stretching.)
  • Don’t bounce during a stretch.
  • Hold each stretch for ten to 30 seconds.
  • Focus on the muscle you’re stretching.
  • A stretch shouldn’t hurt excessively – ease up if you feel strong pain.
  • You could set aside a specific time just for stretching. A half hour is all you need. Do the easy stretches first, and work up to the more strenuous ones.

    Andrew Weil, M.D.

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