Weekly fitTip: Never Stretch Before a Workout

Every once in a while we all get these mysterious sprains or injuries from our activities of daily life or our regular workouts.  These so-called injuries can last anywhere from overnight or go on for days or even weeks.  Very frustrating and senseless as it’s often hard to pinpoint the actual cause.  Most people simply resolve to the fact that they probably didn’t warm up enough.

Well, the truth is, warming up can be a double-edged sword, not only can it prevent injury, but it can also be the cause of injury.

First of all, injuries can be pretty complicated and your lack of warming up may not totally be to blame, but one thing is for sure:  Warming up WILL help you reduce your risk of injury.  You need to get yourself moving and get that blood flowing to your muscles to properly prepare your body before you get all crazy with the dumbbells.

Problem is, most people have been taught that stretching is part of warming-up.  After all, isn’t that what all the fitness magazines suggest.  Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth and it’s exactly the kind of advise that initiates those senseless injuries.

Here’s why you should NEVER stretch before your workout:

#1 Stretching before your workout can increase your risk of injury:

There’s a common misconception that stretching reduces your risk of injury by “loosening” up your muscles.  Well, it’s not all wrong…static stretching can help elongate and relax your muscles, tendons, and ligaments.  But here’s the catch: static stretching reduces your muscles’ ability to contract.

And since your muscles need to be ready to contract (concentrically and eccentrically) at vigorous rates as soon as you start exercising, you want them to be ready for action — NOT in a long and relaxed state. You’re much more likely to pull a muscle when you suddenly try to exert force (like lifting weights) from a relaxed state.  This is why static stretching is not the activity of choice prior to working out.

#2 Stretching is NOT warming-up:

Your warm-up should be a lighter version of what your actual workout is going to be (I call it a “Dynamic Warm-Up”.  For example, if one of the exercises you plan on doing is lunges with dumbbells, then your warm up should be lunges without the weights.  You should do all the low-intensity versions of the exercises you’ll be doing in your workout to properly prepare your muscles, ligaments and joints.  This is why it makes all the difference to plan what you’re going to do before you go the gym.

The whole point of warming up is to get your heart rate up, get your blood flowing and pump more oxygen to your muscles so you can prepare to dive into your workout.  If you stretch during your warm-up, you’re going to let your heart rate back down and allow your muscles to relax…and “undo” what you were trying to accomplish in the first place!

When should you stretch?

Stretching is extremely important, but what’s more important is WHEN you stretch.  Never stretch before a workout, only AFTER your workout.  You want to have good flexibility because that helps reduce risk of injury, but it’s crucial that you don’t work on it until after your workout when you’re cooling down – that’s the right time to lengthen and relax your muscles.

Now, keep this in mind during your next workout and see if you experience the difference.  I can almost guarantee you won’t be getting anymore of those mysterious injuries.

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Featured Exercise: The Plank for Toned Abs

The Low-PlankWhen it comes to abdominal exercises, the Plank gets rockstar status.  It is ranked one of the top 10 most effective ab excercises.  The plank is an isometric exercise that primarily strengthens the abdominal muscles (rectus abdominus and transverse abdominus), but also recruits the core muscles as synergists and stabilizers.

There are different variations of the plank, starting with the low-plank, as shown on the left.  Begin by holding the pose for 20 seconds at a time.  Over time, as your muscles gain strength, increase the time held up to a minute or longer.  Proper form and alignment  is essential for the safety and effectiveness of this exercise.  View the detailed step-by-step instructions by the American Council on Exercise for the proper execution of the Low-Plank.

Modified Low Plank
Modified Low Plank

If the low plank is difficult for you or causes any pain (especially in the back), then try the Modified Plank.  This version takes the pressure off the lower back and allows for more support by using the knees.  Progress to the low plank once you’ve mastered this modified pose and feel stronger in your back.

High Plank
High Plank

There are several progressions of the plank that can be followed, it really depends on your strength.  The length of time you can hold a pose will be an indication of your increasing strength and when it’s appropriate to progress.  The next progression from the low plank is the high plank.  The high plank is done by using straight arms and requires a strong lower back and shoulders.  This is a yoga inspired exercise that works not just the core, but the chest, shoulders, triceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

The Side Plank and Modified Side Plank are yet another version that target different abdominal and core muscles.  This exercise targets the obliques and the deep ab muscles (transverse abdominus) along with the glutes and adductors.  Once again, start with the modified version and work your way up.  View the step-by-step instructions by the American Council on Exercise.

Modified Side Plank
Modified Side Plank
Side Plank
Side Plank
High Side Plank
High Side Plank