Stretching After Exercise: Does it Aid in Recovery?
  • Stretching After Exercise: Does it Aid in Recovery?
    Learn about the body's adaptations to different types of post-workout activities. Did you know that serious stretching after a workout is contraindicated for recovery? Instead, avoid serious stretching after training and use a mild exercise to cool down.
  • Stretching after exercise


    Recovery means to return what was lost. In exercise, we think of recovery as more than this. We would like to believe that recovery following exercise does not simply return what was lost, but also enhances our function. This article will use the term “recovery-adaptation” to refer to the idea of enhanced function after exercise. Of course, immediately after exercise you will be tired. The effects of training are delayed for a period of one to several days after your exercise session.

    The delay of enhanced function has been called the long-term lag of training effect (16). Exercisers and athletes are often counseled to stretch following their workouts to enhance their recovery-adaptation; however, is this a good idea? Historically, it has been thought that stretching should reduce muscle stiffness and delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) (4,5). Exercise folklore on recovery-adaptation often encourages stretching following exercise with little or no justification. Recovery modalities are most frequently associated with enhancing blood and lymph flow in order to nourish muscles and remove waste products. For example, heat, cold, contrast (heat and cold), hydrotherapy, static compression, dynamic compression, vibration, mild exercise, electrical stimulation, and massage are all thought to enhance recovery due to their ability to enhance blood and lymph flow.

    Exercise folklore on recovery-adaptation often encourages stretching following exercise with little or no justification.


    Stretching is “…the application of force to musculotendinous structures in order to achieve a change in their length, usually for the purposes of improving joint range of motion, reducing stiffness or soreness, or preparing for activity,” (1). Pre-exercise stretching appears to have no effect on muscle soreness, tenderness, or loss of force following high-intensity eccentric exercise (7). Research by Cheung, Hume, and Maxwell showed dose-dependent positive effects on DOMS from anti-inflammatory medications, while massage depended on the type of technique used (3). They noted that cryotherapy, stretching, homeopathy, ultrasound, and electrical stimulation demonstrated no positive effect on the relief of muscle soreness (3).

    Stretching before or after exercise did not improve DOMS according to a study by Wessel and Wan (17). Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, stretching decreases blood flow (12). Blood flow, capillary region oxygenation, and velocity of red blood cells have been shown to decrease during stretching by several investigators (11,13,14). If a goal of recovery-adaptation modalities is to increase blood flow, it would appear that stretching after a workout does not help and may actually discourage blood flow. Although it may sound like heresy, serious stretching after workout is contraindicated for recovery (15). A paradox results when people who want to increase their flexibility are told to do their stretching following their workout when they are warm from the previous exertion. This paradox can be resolved by noting that application of both heat and cold can increase flexibility (2,6). Also, the key factor in developing flexibility is developing a “stretch-tolerance” which refers to one learning how to stretch rather than actually changing tissue structure and function (8,9,10). In short, avoid serious stretching after training and use a mild exercise to cool down.


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    Wessel, J, and Wan, A. Effect of stretching on the intensity of delayed-onset muscle soreness. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 4: 83-87, 1994. 

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    About the Author:

    William A. Sands, PhD, CSCS, FACSM, C-ARS, NREMT, WEMT

    William A. Sands, PhD, CSCS, FACSM, C-ARS, NREMT, WEMT has a wealth of experience as a coach, researcher, and educator. Most recently, Dr. Sands served as Education Director for the NSCA and Director of the Monfort Family Human Performance Research Laboratory at Colorado Mesa University. He has contributed research and coaching expertise with the U.S. Olympic Committee in the fields of exercise recovery, biomechanics, and exercise physiology. Dr. Sands coaching background is in gymnastics where he produced several Olympians, more than a dozen national team members, and several World Championship Team members.

  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
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      Decrease Blood Flow and decreased levels of oxygen in the blood? I question how these observations and findings were reach because it seems to me that post-exercise stretching would have an exponential negative affect on both blood flow and oxygen levelsmore» for a 'good reason.' In other words, that stretching has helped circulate more blood and delivered more oxygen to fatigued cells to the point that the need or 'cellular demand' for more blood and oxygen would decrease exponentially over time.

      So, exactly how long was stretching and the its affect on blood flow/oxygen levels monitored and what was the descending rate in these variables? I would be interested to know as I see post-exercise stretching as a great opportunity to teach athletes to visualize and evaluate their exercise performances. If stretching is not beneficial, then it would point towards using other Active Recovery methods to help provide time for an athlete to contemplate their performance while developing effective habits for recovery.«less

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