Q: I’ve always stretched at the beginning of my workout, but a friend told me that it wasn’t good to do so. I thought that stretching before a workout helped to prevent injuries. What should I do?
A. While it’s true that poor flexibility is associated with an increased risk of injury, there is no evidence that stretching prior to exercise reduces this risk. Stretching-related benefits are achieved over time – not in the moments before exercise. As long as you stretch, you will improve your flexibility and thus decrease injury risk regardless of when the stretching is performed.
There actually is a large amount of research showing that static stretching performed immediately prior to exercise can impair strength and power production. This is believed to be due to a stretching-induced reduction in the stiffness of the musculotendinous unit. So, if your goal is to maximize strength and/or power, then it’s probably best to avoid pre-workout static stretching.
It should be noted, however, that the majority of studies showing performance decrements from pre-workout static stretching have employed high-volume protocols – generally far beyond what most people perform (in some studies, a single joint was stretched for upwards of 20 minutes!). Thus, the relevancy to normal static stretching protocols remains questionable. Furthermore, dynamic forms of stretching that employ movement throughout a range of motion generally have not been shown to impair performance even when performed immediately before lifting.
Still and all, my recommendation is to leave stretching until the end of your training session. Given that 1) there really is no benefit to stretching before a workout and 2) it can potentially lead to performance decrements, it makes little sense to include stretching as part of your pre-exercise regimen. What’s more, stretching in the post-workout period has the added benefit of your muscles already being warmed up, which enhances their pliancy.
Best Time to Train Abs
Q: My abs are a problem area. Should I train them at the beginning or the end of my workout?
A: As a general rule, you should train your abs last in a workout, after you’ve completed all other exercises. The reason is simple: the abs are vital to core stability and, by training them first in a routine, you reduce their capacity to act as stabilizers later in the session. Outside of a few machine-based moves, the vast majority of exercises you perform will require a significant involvement of the core musculature in order to carry out dynamic movement. Bottom line: fatigue your core muscles and you’ll impair your ability to train other muscle groups at a high level of intensity.
If your abs are a “problem area,” then you might consider training them alone on a separate day. This will allow you to focus all your energies on working them when you are fresh, without fear of compromising the training of other muscle groups.
Remember, though, that your abs are no different from any other muscle and need adequate rest to properly develop. What’s more, since the abs are subjected to a tremendous amount of ancillary work as stabilizers when you train other muscle groups, they easily can become overtrained. So be cognizant to allow time for sufficient recuperation between training sessions; it’s the only way you will optimize their development.
Why Hamstrings Exercises Are Important
Q: Do I need to include hamstring exercises in my routine if I do squats and lunges?
A: Unless you are genetically gifted with great hamstring development then, yes, you will need to perform targeted hamstring movements. While it is true that exercises such as the squat do involve the hamstrings, studies show that hamstring activity during the move is only about 50% of that of the quadriceps. Here’s why: the hamstrings are a two-joint muscle that help to carry out hip extension and knee flexion. This has implications for performance of any multi-joint exercise including the squat, lunge, or leg press. Namely, the hips and knees flex during the descent of these moves and extend during the ascent. The hamstrings therefore are shortening at one end while lengthening at the other throughout the movement, which limits their ability to generate significant force.
It is generally accepted that the quad/hamstrings strength ratio should be approximately 60:40. Given that the quads will be dominant in most multi-joint lower body movements, targeted exercises for the hamstrings are necessary to ensure this ratio is maintained. For best results, two types of hamstrings exercises should be performed: 1) variations of leg curls (i.e., lying, seated, kneeling, etc.) that work the hamstrings at the knee joint and 2) stiff-legged deadlifts, good mornings, and other single-joint hip extension movements that work the hamstrings at the hip joint. Just make sure to keep the knees as straight as possible when performing single-joint hip extension exercises, as this will maximize the hamstring’s force-generating capacity.