Should You Stretch Before or After a Workout?

To stretch or not to stretch... that debate is over, after a short hiatus, stretching is good for you again. But when should you do it?

By Lauren Bedosky |

Stretching is a vital component of any workout routine. It can improve your range of motion and flexibility, increase blood flow, and prime your muscles for the activity ahead.

But if you want to reap the benefits of stretching, your timing is key. So should you stretch before or after your workout? Let us ask the experts.

When to Stretch Before a Workout

If you have a long or intense workout planned (think high-intensity cycling intervals, an endurance-focused ride, or a heavy strength session), budget five to 15 minutes for stretching beforehand.

The type of stretching you do before your workout also matters. While static stretching (holding a stretch for an extended period) used to be the gold standard, research suggests that it may actually reduce performance.

For example, a 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that static stretching before a workout decreased lower-body strength in a one-rep maximum squat test by more than 8 percent. The researchers speculate that lengthening cold muscles dampens their ability to fire efficiently during quick or heavy movements.

The best stretches to do before a workout should therefore be more active, yet controlled—movements known as dynamic stretches. “Dynamic stretches are movements that mimic the activity you’re about to perform to help increase blood flow, warm up the muscles, and improve the range of motion,” says Jakub Novak, a USA Cycling-certified coach and former professional cyclist, who often has his clients warm up with dynamic stretches.

Instead of holding a stretch, dynamic stretches move your joints through their full range of motion while activating the muscles throughout the stretch, per the Hospital for Special Surgery. Examples include arm circles, side bends, and torso twists. They can also include lunges or squats.

Using dynamic stretches to prepare your muscles and joints for exercise can pay off in performance dividends. According to a 2017 research review in Sports Medicine, several studies reported short-term improvements in power, sprint, and jump performance when athletes performed a warmup that included dynamic stretches.

To prepare for a ride, Novak suggests warming up with the following dynamic stretches.

Leg Swings

Stand beside a wall or support and swing one leg forward and backward in a controlled, fluid motion. Do 10-15 swings per leg.

Arm Circles

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and extend arms out to sides. Make small circles with arms, gradually increasing the size of the circles. Continue for 10-15 seconds in each direction.

Walking Lunges

Stand with feet hip-width apart. Step one foot forward and bend knees until front thigh is parallel (or almost parallel) to the floor. Push off with lead foot to bring the opposite foot forward to step into the next lunge. Continue walking forward, alternating legs for 10-15 lunges per side.

Shoulder Circles

Stand tall and extend arms out to sides. Make small circular motions with shoulders, moving them forward and backward for 10-15 repetitions in each direction.

Hip Rotations

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and place hands on hips. Rotate hips in a circular motion, making clockwise and counterclockwise circles. Perform 10-15 rotations in each direction.

Leisure rides or light and quick strength sessions probably don’t require a preworkout stretching routine. However, do what feels right for you. If moving through a few dynamic stretches helps you prepare for your workout, then by all means, go for it.

When to Stretch After a Workout

You don’t necessarily have to stretch after a workout, but it’s always a good idea to cool down, especially if your workout was long or intense. A cooldown allows your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature to drop gradually, which can help prevent lightheadedness and nausea, per the American Heart Association.

However, if you’d like to improve your flexibility, the cooldown is a great time for static stretching, says Garret Seacat, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist and USA Cycling-certified coach.

Exercise raises your body temperature and increases blood flow, making muscles warm and pliable. Stretching immediately after a workout, while your muscles are still warm, enables you to sink deeper into a stretch. This can help you achieve greater flexibility. “Improved flexibility can enhance athletic performance, prevent muscle imbalances, and promote better movement patterns,” Novak says.

A 2021 Sports Medicine review suggests that static stretching can also improve the range of motion in the stretched muscle and joint, as well as the surrounding muscles and joints. Increasing your range of motion may help you move more efficiently in sports and daily life, lowering your injury risk and boosting performance.

However, don’t expect your cooldown stretches to prevent post-workout muscle soreness, notes the American Council on Exercise. Still, many people find that stretching helps release muscle tension, which can feel really good after a tough workout. It gives your body and mind the chance to relax and return to homeostasis.

For a cycling-specific cooldown, Novak recommends the following static stretches. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds, release, and repeat for three total sets per leg. “Remember to perform each stretch slowly and avoid bouncing or jerking movements,” Seacat notes.

Standing Quad Stretch

From a standing position, shift weight onto right leg. Bend left knee to bring heel toward glutes. Gently grip ankle with opposite (right) hand. Stand up straight and hold leg in the bent position. Try to keep shoulders relaxed and knees together. Feel a slight stretch along the front of thigh and hip.

Standing Calf Stretch

Stand in front of a wall at arm’s length with feet hip-width apart. Place both hands flat against the wall and step one foot back so leg is straight, heel flat on the ground. Front knee will be bent. Keep both feet pointed forward and gently press palms into the wall until you feel a stretch in calf.

Seated Hamstring Stretch

Sit on the floor or on a chair and extend one leg out in front of you, with your heel on the floor and toes pointed up, other leg bent with foot touching opposite thigh. Keeping chest up and spine long, lean forward slowly until you feel a stretch in the back of thigh.

The Bottom Line on Stretching Before or After a Workout

Both pre- and post-workout stretching offer benefits. Dynamic stretching before exercise can get your muscles warm and ready for the movements to come, while incorporating static stretching into a cooldown can help release muscle tension and boost flexibility.

That said, there are many ways to warm up and cool down. “While some cyclists may experience benefits from stretching, others may prefer alternative warmup and cooldown approaches like foam rolling, yoga, or light aerobic exercise,” Seacat says.

“The key is to use a routine that aligns with your needs and objectives,” he adds. If stretching doesn’t serve you before or after a workout, it’s okay to skip. And if you really want to do either pre or post-workout stretches over the other, Novack says to focus on static stretches after a sweat: “Stretching when the muscles are warm and more pliable allows for a greater stretch and can help lengthen muscle fibres,” he says.

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