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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