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Why I’ll keep stretching, even though it hurts.

This article, about why stretching before a workout is foolish, sparked a lot of reactions for me. I always stretch before I work out, and I have my students do the same. It made me re-evaluate why I do. And I think the conclusion I came to was that it really depends on the kind of exercise you do. The article itself seems like a great example of two things: “science” “proving” something that was, or would have been, obvious to most people already, and an ex-post-facto justification of the result the blogger found attractive: in this case, that painful stretching before working out was a bad thing.

An image of me, in a not-so-bendy pose

Then again, since this is the limit of my flexibility, I need all the help I can get.

Full disclosure: I’m an acrobat, and a big part of acrobatics is being flexible. As part of that, I spend a couple hours a week on classes that are exclusively stretching, with more time spent at home and at the gym stretching on my own, or as a warm-up for a class. The take-home messages of that article: that prolonged stretching makes you wobbly, weaker, and sort of out of joint, are in no way surprising to me. My stretching coach herself tells us NEVER to lift heavy objects shortly after stretching our backs, even after we’ve “recovered” with some abdominal exercises.

So, yeah: immediately after stretching, I’m probably somewhat weaker, and certainly more out of joint, than I was before stretching.

Moreover, I understand that overstretching is a thing. The prevalence of overstretching is why I choose my current flexibility coach: previous coaches have overestimated my flexibility to the point that they made it difficult to walk for days following class. I’m lucky I got away with just that, and not more severe tears and strains, or permanent injuries. The prevalence of overstretching in yoga is evidence enough that this is a real, and dangerous, thing.

But I still stretch. Why? For a couple reasons: first of all, the poses and movements that I do don’t just require strength, speed, and agility. They require considerable flexibility. To be honest, they could often use more flexibility than I have right now. And if my legs didn’t hyper-extend a bit – if the tendons in my legs were that much stronger or quicker to tense – my lines wouldn’t look half as good.

If I didn’t stretch at every workout, not only would I not gain the flexibility I want, I would rapidly lose the flexibility I have struggled to gain.

A pose that requires considerable hip flexibility

This picture of my good friend and a fantastic aerialist, Sommer Strangelove, demonstrates the kind of (baseline) hip flexibility that is pretty much required for aerialists.

Me basing Elliott

And in case you thought that might mean I avoided strength-intensive poses, here’s one of my favorites. I’m holding up my partner, Elliott. With one hand.

But that’s an argument for stretching after a workout, not necessarily before one. And true to form many dance classes and fitness classes include stretching as part of a cool-down rather than a warm-up, if they include it at all. Nonetheless, I stretch before I climb. For reason number two: life is about compromise. The first time I do my splits, it’s pretty awful. The second time around, once I’ve spent some time stretching, it works somewhat better, although I’m not to the point where I have full splits yet, no matter how much I stretch. I know I sacrifice strength to gain that flexibility, but even with 5% less strength and 5% more flexibility, my poses generally suffer from a lack of flexibility rather than a lack of strength. Moreover, I’m more likely to pull a muscle by forcing myself into one of those positions in the air, before I’ve limbered up, where there’s a lot more gravity at play, than I am by easing myself into the warm-up stretch on the ground, where I can support myself more effectively from below.

As a side note, since at the end of class I’m generally dead tired and facing an hour or more commute home, I don’t stay and stretch nearly as long as I should. I spend a good five to ten minutes on my shoulders, but going over my hips and back again? Not going to happen. Getting there early, while I still have time, and stretching before class, is simply better logistically. Were I a true professional, and if I spent most of my day training, then I would be more dutiful in this respect: I would probably use a dynamic warm-up with minimal stretching, then train, then condition, then stretch. The whole thing would take several hours.

Janelle posing on trapeze, in a deep back bend

My friend, student, and general inspiration Janelle, for instance, sets a very high bar for spinal stretches, among other things.

I guess what I’m saying is that the article is right, up to a point. Static stretching as part of a warm-up will make you somewhat more “wobbly”, somewhat weaker, and somewhat less quick. And if you’re doing sprints, or lifting weights, or doing something that doesn’t require active flexibility, you might see better results by doing a dynamic warm-up. Certainly, staying in a deep spinal stretch for a long time isn’t advised (and everyone has a different definition of ‘deep spinal stretch’ and ‘long time’). But if your workout requires active flexibility as well as strength, it’s probably still worthwhile – and possibly necessary – to warm-up the poses you’ll actually be doing. Even if it’s uncomfortable, or difficult.

And if you thought this was in part an excuse to brag about how awesome my friends/students are, you might be a little bit right.

Photos of Janelle, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth basing Elliott were taken by Eric Bender. Photo of Sommer taken by Michael Creasy. All photos used with permission.

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Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at madgeneticist.tumblr.com, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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