Want a better workout? Then don't stretch beforehand, some experts say.

Many people take it for granted that they should
start their exercise routines with some stretching on the spot, perhaps
hoping it will loosen them up for their work-out. Most fitness experts
now agree this kind of static stretching before exercise is not just
counter-productive, but potentially harmful.

Traditional stretches, like when people bend
over to touch their toes or stretch their legs on a fence, often cause
the muscles to tighten rather than relax -- exactly the opposite of what
is needed for physical activity.

Experts say it is like extending a rubber band
to its limit. When people stretch to the maximum, they are more likely
to pull a muscle.

"We have developed this idea of static
stretching at exactly the wrong time," said Kieran O'Sullivan, an
exercise expert at the University of Limerick in Ireland, who has
studied various types of stretching and their impact on athletes.

When you stretch before exercising, your body
may think it's at risk of being overstretched. It compensates by
contracting and becoming more tense. That means you aren't able to move
as fast or as freely, making you more likely to get hurt.

O'Sullivan said stretching helps with
flexibility, but people should only do it when they aren't about to
exercise, like after a workout, or at the end of the day.

"It's like weight training to become stronger,"
he said. "You wouldn't do a weight session right before you exercise,
and you shouldn't stretch right before either."

In the last few years, several studies have found static stretching before playing a sport makes you slower and weaker.

And when experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
combed through more than 100 papers looking at stretching studies, they
found 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.

Instead of stretching, many experts recommend
warming up with a light jog or sport-specific exercise, like kicking
for football or a few serves for tennis. That type of light movement
increases the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, warming up the
body temperature.

"This allows you to approach your full range of
motion, but in a very controlled way," said Dr. Anders Cohen, chief of
neurosurgery and spine surgery at the Brooklyn Hospital Center and
former physician for the U.S. Tennis Open. Cohen said elite athletes in
all sports are increasingly ditching static stretching and using other
warm-up techniques instead.

But the message has yet to trickle down to
legions of joggers and recreational athletes. "This is classic,
old-school stretching that has been done for generations," Cohen said.
"It's going to be very hard to convince people to start doing something

There's more news for the traditionalists:
research shows static stretching doesn't work as well as more active
kinds of stretching that incorporate movement, such as lunges.

In a study published earlier this year in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, Roberto Meroni of the University of
Milan and colleagues found people who stretched using conventional
techniques, like bending over to touch their toes, were less flexible
than those who did a more active type of stretching that used more
muscle groups.

Meroni said static stretching simply forces the
muscle being stretched to endure the pain of that stretch. With active
stretches that work more muscles, the stretched muscles learn to extend
while another group is working.

Those types of stretches are commonly used in
yoga, which emphasizes how the body is aligned during stretches, not
just flexibility. Many yoga poses involve the whole body and focus not
only on stretching a particular muscle, but the ligaments, tendons and
joints around it.

Still, experts don't discount static stretching
entirely. Lynn Millar, a fellow of the American College of Sports
Medicine, said they recommend people stretch several times a week and
that most types of stretching work.

Maximizing the benefits of stretching may simply
boil down to a matter of when you do it and how, according to Jonny
Booth, a health and fitness manager at a north London branch of gym
chain Fitness First.

"If you are going to stretch your muscles and
then do some intense training, you're not going to get fantastic
results," he said.

Instead, Booth recommends active stretches that
mimic the movement of your intended activity, like some deep knee
lunges while walking for runners.

"Stretching is vital to become more flexible," Booth said. "But it has to be done at the right time and for the right reasons."

News release courtesy of USAtoday.com.


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