We’ve all rushed out of the gym feeling a little guilty about skipping our cool-down stretches. After all, you always hear that stretching before and after exercise prevents injury. But just how accurate is that advice, anyway?
As it turns out, we already do some of the stretching our bodies need without even realizing it. You know, that super-satisfying moment in the morning when you extend every limb in order to fully wake up. Or that side-to-side twist you do when you get out of the car. “After being still for a while, our bodies use these movements to push fluid into the cartilage that cushions our joints,” explains William Sands, Ph.D., F.A.C.S.M. “Cartilage has no blood supply, so we have to physically move fluid into it so that our joints are lubricated and ready for movement.” That cute stretch your dog does—same thing.
But whether you need to deliberately stretch after a workout or before bedtime depends on what your individual health and fitness look like. “The purpose of static stretching is to increase your range of motion and flexibility,” says Sands.
Do YOU Need To Stretch?
If you lift weights or play a sport and can touch your toes, you may be a-okay without regular static stretching. “If you’re a healthy, regular exerciser, you may not need to worry about stretching because your activities maintain your range of motion,” says Sands.
To check whether your range of motion is up to par, pay attention to how you move throughout daily tasks. If you can comfortably reach down to pick up something on the ground, or reach up above your head for your top kitchen shelf, you’re probably good to go, says Sands.
If you have trouble turning your head to check your blind spot while driving, or throwing a baseball to your kid, that’s a different story—especially if you skimp on exercise. “If you don’t stay active, your joints stiffen (remember that spiel about moving fluid into your cartilage?) and your range of motion suffers,” says Sands.
When To Stretch—And How To Do It Right
To improve your general range of motion, focus on exercising regularly and check for improvement after a few weeks, says Sands.
If you’re new to working out—or are getting back on the bandwagon after a long break—add five to 10 minutes of static stretching after exercise, when your muscles are warmed up, says Jacqueline Crockford, M.S., C.S.C.S., Exercise Physiology Content Manager at ACE. “Focus on the muscle groups you just worked,” she says. “If you went for a walk, stretch your hamstrings, quads, and calves.”
Structure your stretching routine the same way you structure your strength training: Perform multiple sets of the same stretch before moving on to the next, says Sands. For example, hold your hamstring stretch for 20 to 30 seconds, rest, and repeat that same pattern two more times, for three sets total. Then move to your quad stretch.
Watch Out For Red Flags
If your crummy range of motion is because of a lower-back injury or chronic pain, see a physical therapist or an orthopedist before trying to stretch your suffering away. “While improving flexibility can be an important part of injury rehab, you need a professional to identify resulting muscular imbalances and do any other soft tissue work—like massage—in order to heal,” says Crockford. If the reason you can’t pick that baseball up is because of a blaze of pain in your back, don’t try to fix it on your own.
Stretching also becomes more important as we get older. “As we age, we’re not as active or doing large movements regularly, which decreases our flexibility over time,” says Crockford. Regular stretching can help to maintain and improve muscle elasticity, connective tissue (fascia and tendons) mobility, and overall flexibility and posture, she says.
Ultimately, if stretching makes you feel good and helps you relax psychologically after a workout, it’s worth the effort—even if you might not physically need to, says Sands. Just know that for the average active, healthy person, your bod won’t be mad at you for running straight from the treadmill to the car.