Stretch Before or After Working Out? What Physical Therapists Actually Recommend

The ‘rules’ around stretching have gotten complicated, but don’t let confusion stop you. Learn why stretching is so important and when and how to stretch.

Published Date: Jun 6, 2023

Stretch Before or After Working Out? What Physical Therapists Actually Recommend

The ‘rules’ around stretching have gotten complicated, but don’t let confusion stop you. Learn why stretching is so important and when and how to stretch.

Published Date: Jun 6, 2023

Stretch Before or After Working Out? What Physical Therapists Actually Recommend

The ‘rules’ around stretching have gotten complicated, but don’t let confusion stop you. Learn why stretching is so important and when and how to stretch.

Published Date: Jun 6, 2023

Stretch Before or After Working Out? What Physical Therapists Actually Recommend

The ‘rules’ around stretching have gotten complicated, but don’t let confusion stop you. Learn why stretching is so important and when and how to stretch.

Published Date: Jun 6, 2023
Table of Contents

Stretching is an essential part of an effective workout, but sometimes it’s easier to just skip it. Over the years, conflicting information about how and when to stretch has made some give up on it. Always stretch before you exercise. Don’t stretch before a workout. A pre-workout stretch can prevent injury. Stretching before a game or race can hinder performance. 

But don’t let the confusion dissuade you from stretching.

“It's beneficial to stretch both before and after your workout,” says Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “People who stretch before and after their workouts stick with it because they feel more prepared for their workouts, and it helps them relax and transition out of their workouts afterwards.” What’s more, stretching regularly can help relieve pain that can get in the way of your ability to be active.

Here, learn the benefits of stretching, the different types of stretches, the best time to do them, and some specific stretches recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Kimbrough is a Hinge Health physical therapist and board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

Why Is Stretching Important?

Stretching can provide both physical benefits (like releasing tight muscles) and mental benefits (like reducing stress). Some of the benefits depend on the type of stretching you’re doing. 

  • Static stretches are what most people think of when they hear the word stretching. You get into a position that lengthens a muscle, like touching your toes (which helps lengthen your hamstrings), and hold it for about 30 seconds. 

  • Dynamic stretches look very different because they’re movement-based. Moves like high knees or side-to-side lunges loosen muscles and joints by taking them through their full range of motion. 

Here are some benefits you’ll get from incorporating both types of stretches: 

  • Increased flexibility. This is probably the best-known benefit of stretching and the one with the most research to support it. “There's strong evidence that stretching improves flexibility and range of motion,” says Dr. Kimbrough. Flexibility is the ability of joints and surrounding muscles, tendons, ligaments, and tissue to move through a full range of motion without pain or restriction. The more flexible you are, the easier it will be to reach overhead to grab dishes off a top shelf, bend over to pick something up, or twist to throw a frisbee. While all types of stretching can increase flexibility, static stretches tend to offer the most long-term benefit. 

  • Improved athletic performance. Dynamic stretches in particular have been shown to have a more significant effect than static stretches on enhancing performance. This doesn’t just apply to elite athletes, though. It also refers to running, biking, playing tennis, or doing whatever else keeps you active.

  • Improved relaxation. Stretching can help ease muscle tension and stress that builds up in your body. “We go-go-go all day,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “Any type of stretching can give you a moment for reflection or calmness.” To maximize the benefit, pair your stretches with deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing. You can even close your eyes as you’re holding stretches to make the experience more soothing.

  • Injury prevention. Preparing your body for activity by doing dynamic stretches before you work out may minimize your risk of injury. When you have good flexibility and a full range of motion in all of your joints, your body is better able to distribute loads and forces that it encounters as you move, says Dr. Kimbrough. 

  • Pain relief. Both dynamic and static stretches can coach your body into being active, particularly if you’ve been more sedentary because of persistent pain. Gentle exercise — at Hinge Health, we call this exercise therapy — retrains your body’s pain system that you’re safe to move. Read more about this benefit of stretching below.

When Is the Best Time to Stretch?

It depends on why you’re stretching. 

To Increase Flexibility

If you’re looking to increase flexibility, you want to focus on static stretches, where you hold a position for about 30 seconds. The best time to do static stretches for flexibility is after warming your body up — often, after a workout or doing some yoga. Muscles lengthen more when they’re warm, so you may see greater improvements when you stretch after a workout. You’ll also be less likely to pull or strain a muscle when it’s warm and pliable. A post-workout stretch also aids recovery by increasing blood flow to deliver oxygen and nutrients and whisk away waste products like lactic acid. (This can also help reduce some post-workout soreness.) 

To Prepare for a Workout

If you want to loosen up before you work out, dynamic stretches that involve movement are the way to go. Dynamic stretching increases blood flow to warm up muscles, lubricates your joints, and raises your heart and breathing rates to prepare your body to meet the physical demands of the exercise. 

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This doesn’t mean you can’t perform static stretches before working out. If stretching before exercising feels good to you, it can be a part of your warm-up routine, but it shouldn’t be the only part. In fact, you’ll get more benefits by doing static stretches after some dynamic stretching. You’ll be able to stretch farther and loosen up more when your muscles are warm and your joints are lubricated.

Dynamic Stretches Before Your Workout

Want a few ideas to help you prepare for your next workout? Try these dynamic stretches. Start slowly and gradually increase the intensity by moving more quickly. (For example, begin with high-knee marching and then progress to high-knee jogging.) Aim to do five to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching to warm up before your workout.

  • Shoulder circles: Start by relaxing your shoulders, then slowly rotate them in a circular motion (either forward or backward). This warms up your arms and shoulders. 

  • Squats: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and lower your body by bending your knees and hips, keeping your chest up and back straight, until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Then push through your heels to return to the starting position. These will warm up your legs, glutes, and hips.

  • High knees: Lift one knee up toward your chest while driving the opposite arm forward, and alternate quickly between knees to maintain a brisk pace. This will kick up your heart rate while activating muscles in the front of your legs.

  • Butt kicks: Start by flexing your knees, then kick your heels towards your glutes, alternating legs in a running motion while maintaining an upright posture. This keeps your heart rate up while targeting muscles in the back of your legs.

  • Hamstring scoops: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, hinge forward from the hips, and swing one leg back, keeping it straight. Then scoop your leg forward in a controlled motion, repeating the movement with the other leg while maintaining a stable core and controlled pace. This works your upper and lower body simultaneously.

Static Stretches After Your Workout

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This targets the back side of your body, from your arms and shoulders to your hamstrings and calves.

These static stretches will help you relax and recover after a workout. Regularly practicing them will also increase your flexibility and range of motion. Hold each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat for two to four repetitions.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

Stretching to Treat Pain and Injuries

Stretching is an important part of managing ongoing pain for a number of reasons. First, gentle stretching movements help to ease chronic pain and pain from injuries so you’re able to do more exercise, which further helps with pain. Instead of being a vicious cycle, it’s the good kind of cycle. Stretching can also increase your pain tolerance. A 2020 pilot study in the Scandinavian Journal of Pain found that people were less sensitive to a pain stimulus after stretching. This helps explain why people with chronic pain get some relief when prescribed exercise, including stretches, which is a key part of Hinge Health’s exercise therapy programs for all kinds of musculoskeletal pain. 

Another factor that plays into someone’s experience with pain: stress. Chronic pain and stress, anxiety, and depression have similar pathways in the brain, says Dr. Kimbrough. Pain can exacerbate these conditions and, in turn, stress, anxiety, and depression can affect how someone experiences pain. This is why people with chronic pain report more stress, anxiety, and depression. Taking time out to stretch and focus on your breathing can help alleviate stress and anxiety, break this cycle, and possibly reduce pain.

Lastly, stretching can help prevent pain or provide relief by helping your body distribute forces equally. All joints in your body work together, so if one area is tight, another area has to pick up the slack, which can contribute to or aggravate a painful condition over time. (For example, tight hips can impact how your back feels after a long day of sitting or going for a run.) “Stretching to improve range of motion helps distribute forces that go through the body, which in turn can help decrease pain,” notes Dr. Kimbrough. 

PT Tip: Stretching Should Never Hurt

We’ll admit, stretching can be a little uncomfortable, especially at first if your muscles are really tight. But stretching shouldn’t cause you a lot of pain. When you do static stretches, go only as far as the point of slight discomfort or tension. “You don’t want to go too far past that,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “It’s okay to have that ‘hurts-so-good’ sensation, but you shouldn't feel any sharp pain with static stretching.” The same goes for dynamic stretching. If you feel any pain, slow down, check your technique, or reduce your range of motion into a pain-free zone. For example, if you notice pain in your knees while squatting, squat more slowly or don’t squat so low.

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you.

See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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  1. Simic, L., Sarabon, N., & Markovic, G. (2012). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(2), 131–148. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01444.x

  2. Konrad, A., Močnik, R., Nakamura, M., Sudi, K., & Tilp, M. (2021). The Impact of a Single Stretching Session on Running Performance and Running Economy: A Scoping Review. Frontiers in Physiology, 11, 630282. doi:10.3389/fphys.2020.630282

  3. Herman, K., Barton, C., Malliaras, P., & Morrissey, D. (2012). The effectiveness of neuromuscular warm-up strategies, that require no additional equipment, for preventing lower limb injuries during sports participation: a systematic review. BMC Medicine, 10(1). doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-75

  4. Larouche, M.-C., Samuel Camiré Bernier, Racine, R., Collin, O., Mikaël Desmons, Mailloux, C., & Massé-Alarie, H. (2020). Stretch-induced hypoalgesia: a pilot study. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 20(4), 837-845. doi:10.1515/sjpain-2020-0018

Table of Contents
Why Is Stretching Important?When Is the Best Time to Stretch?To Increase FlexibilityTo Prepare for a WorkoutDynamic Stretches Before Your WorkoutStretching to Treat Pain and InjuriesPT Tip: Stretching Should Never HurtHow Hinge Health Can Help YouReferences