Stretching might be seen as the first part of your workout, but you shouldn’t go in cold.
Whether you’re a regular yogi or only go into child’s pose to release muscle tension after an intense workout, you probably know that there are huge benefits associated with stretching. But while it may be seen as a gentle or restorative practice, you shouldn’t be lowering into a static lunge or reaching through upward dog without a warm-up first.
That may sound weird, given that we often see stretching as a warm-up in its own right, loosening the muscles before strength training or running. However, going into a stretch with cold or stiff muscles will do you more harm than good.
“If you have been sitting at your desk for seven hours or you just got out of bed after a long night’s sleep, your body is not fully prepared for movement,” says yoga teacher Minnie Samengo. In order to prep it, you need to gradually increase the heart rate and circulation to loosen the joints and warm the muscles for optimum stretching and injury prevention.
“Your body’s stretch reflex is a really useful tool. It contracts the muscles when you are doing too much or stretching too far in order to signal to the body to stop. Stretching when cold or tense will shock the nervous system and automatically activate the stretch reflex, whereas being warm and prepping the nervous system for exercise deactivates that stretch reflex.
“Long story short, if you ask your muscles to work out in a tense state, they won’t stretch as far, they’ll be weaker, and they will have a decreased performance,” explains Minnie.
Most importantly though, getting the muscles warm pre-stretch is also essential because “the colder your muscles are when you stretch them, the lower the load needed in order for them to tear,” explains Minnie, which essentially means you can do more damage more easily.
Regardless of whether you’re stretching as part of a warm-up, yoga class or flexibility session, warming up is crucial. So how do you do that? “If you’re going to a class, try walking there to get the blood flowing around the body a bit more. At home, perhaps try climbing stairs, doing a few jumping jacks or jogging on the spot,” says Minnie.
Then you should do five minutes of dynamic movements that will engage the muscles you’ll be using during your practice. Dynamic stretching is different from the slow stretching you might do in a yoga sequence whereby you hold a posture for a long time. Instead, “it’s about doing repetitive movements where your joints and muscles go through a full range of motion,” says Minnie.
When moving through dynamic postures, focus on the main muscles your stretch session will target. For example, if your yoga session will focus on balance and stability, make sure to warm up your core and glutes. If you are running, work through your hips and quads. You can find the best dynamic stretches on Stylist.co.uk here.
So, while stretching out after a long day of work is a good idea, make sure you get warm and loose by moving through postures before holding them still. “You really need to make sure the body is ready before dropping into the splits or pulling your shoulders back,” says Minnie.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).