Most folk appreciate the benefits to warming up prior to the commencement of exercise. The method behind warming up is simple: Your body prepares for the increased demands of physical activity, reducing your risk of injury and complications. Blood flow to your working muscles is increased, which in turn sends vital oxygen to them. In addition, your body is prepared mentally, so that concentration, coordination and motivation all become heightened.
This is where a lot of people fall into the false belief that stretching prior to exercise is a form of warm-up for the body and muscles. Warming up and stretching are two completely different activities.
A warm-up involves doing some light, aerobic activity which serves to increase blood flow to the muscles and fluid to the joints, thereby allowing them to become more malleable.
Stretching involves elongating a muscle fibre from its origin and insertion from the muscle and tendons. Exercises that stretch the muscle fibres aim to increase muscle-tendon FLEXIBILITY, improve RANGE OF MOTION and improve musculoskeletal function. It does not serve to increase your heart rate or blood blow which a warm-up serves to do.
Stretching without warming up can be potentially harmful as it increases the risk of ‘pulling’ a muscle. The reason being: when you stretch a muscle that is ‘cold’ i.e. not warmed up from doing some light aerobic activity, the fibres in that muscle have little blood flow to them in addition to the joints having less fluids around them that exercise stimulates. This results in the muscle fibres and joint capsules being less able to move freely which, in turn, can cause injury.
We at AMR Personal Training never advocate stretching without fully warming up. To be honest, a thorough warm-up is usually enough with gradual easing into an exercise routine. In fact, the topic of stretching prior to exercise is now hotly debated and much research has concluded: ‘fitness experts who reviewed more than 100 stretching studies found that people who stretched before exercise were no less likely to suffer injuries such as a pulled muscle, which the increased flexibility from stretching is supposed to prevent.