The Difference Between Stretching and Warming Up

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Eager to leap into your exercise routine and get on with the day? Not so fast. Starting a workout with “cold” muscles may lead to injury, or can decrease the health results you’re going for. But how much warm-up is enough? And does it matter equally if you are a beginner or a trained athlete?

The difference between stretching and warming up

Many people think that a good stretch before an activity is a warm-up. But the two terms mean very different things, says Dr. Lee Kaplan, director of the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute.

“Stretching helps our muscles and connective tissue, like tendons, increase flexibility,” offers Dr. Kaplan. “Proper stretching helps elongate our muscles and increases our range of motion. It can help prevent injury, especially as we age. But it is not a dynamic warm-up for athletics or before exercise activity.”

Dr. Kaplan explains that a warm-up, on the other hand, gets our bodies prepared for the activity about to take place. It gets the heart pumping blood to our muscles, gradually increases our breathing toward the rate we will be exercising at, and gets the body’s systems “ready” to go. Warm-ups also are recommended before static stretching takes place.

“The classic analogy is comparing it to starting a car in a winter climate,” he shares. “When we warm-up a car, and let it have a little time before accelerating too fast, all the critical parts get ready for action. It helps avoid ‘injury’ to the car’s engine and moving parts. And it can help that car have a potentially healthier life or at least delays the need for repairs. You just shouldn’t go instantly from 0 to 100.”

What does science say?

In recent years, some consumer magazines and newspaper stories pointed to a lack of evidence showing that stretching or warm-ups actually decreased injury rates. Dr. Kaplan says that the main reason is likely more about the limited amount of good research available.

“For each study finding a non-benefit, you can find a different study showing a benefit,” he adds. “What we do know is what we see and what we have continued to see over the years. Whether a senior citizen on a treadmill or an Olympic athlete in competition, the body needs to be prepped for strenuous activity for maximum benefit. It’s an exciting time because larger, evidence-based studies are underway offering ideas we can all benefit from.”

One Journal of Sports Science and Medicine study, for example, found that low- to moderate-intensity lower-body warm-ups helped athletes activate 5.9 to 8.5 percent more of the muscle fibers in the quad muscles of their legs—boosting performance. Another found that warm-ups allowed people to start activities with higher levels of oxygen, resulting in improved performance in both short and long duration exercises, says Dr. Kaplan.

“Warm-ups also can pre-load our cells with calcium,” says Dr. Kaplan. “That allows our muscles to contract more fully during the actual workout or physical activity.”

Everyday Tips

Now that you’re ready to roll, here are some basic reminders to help stave off injuries and improve your lifelong health!

  • When stretching, avoid fast, jerky motions. Slow and steady, staying balanced, is the way to go.
  • Do not stretch any muscle you have recently injured unless your doctor or therapist approves.
  • Pain equals “no gain.” Stop stretching or warming up if you feel any pain.
  • Stretch gently throughout the day when possible. Especially if you have a desk job.
  • Try to stretch from three to four times per week. Do a brief full-body warm-up before stretching — even a few laps around the house will help avoid injury.
  • If preparing for a certain event, focus on stretching the muscles that will be most used.
  • Warm-up in different ways each time to break up the monotony. Everything from cardio machines, lunges, dancing and skipping rope do the trick. Brisk walking or slow jogging are excellent routines to get into. Moving both your arms and legs helps.
  • Strive for a 5- to 15-minute warm-up, starting slowly and speeding up gradually.
  • The American College of Sports Medicine recommends cooling down after a workout to decrease your heart rate, breathing rate, to prevent cramps and any dizziness.
  • Make your cool down a series of slow movements for from 5 to 10 minutes total. Try not to rest too long between movements.
  • Cooldowns are especially important for people on hypertension medications to avoid abrupt drops in blood pressure after exercise.

Need advice or help for a sports-related injury? Visit the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute online or call (305) 243-3000.