Ironically, I am pretty darn sore right now. A leg workout from 2 days ago has made taking the stairs and sitting on the toilet a bit more deliberate! Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has definitely kicked in – but could I have prevented this soreness if I had stretched after my workout?
To get everyone on the same page, soreness is a general term for the fatigue and discomfort in the muscles that results from exercise. Exercise creates stress on the muscle, especially when the muscle is contracted while it is lengthening (eccentric contraction) – such as slowly lowering dumbbells during a biceps curl.
When the body repairs the muscle, inflammation and soreness can occur. Soreness is usually delayed 48 to 72 hours after the workout, referred to as DOMS. Why is it delayed 48-72 hours? We are not 100% sure, but researchers gain more insight every day.
There are several types of stretching, such as static, dynamic, ballistic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). However, static stretching is most commonly referred to option for soreness reduction.
In static stretching, a muscle is stretched just passed its current resting length, creating tension. This stretch is held for several seconds (e.g. 30 to 45). During this time, the nerves in the muscle do their thing, eventually letting the overactive muscle relax a bit.
Stretching has numerous benefits, but the question we have before us is, "does stretching after a workout prevent muscle soreness?"
What Does the Research Say
In 2007, a Cochrane Review analyzed the most up-to-date research studies that examined the effect of stretching on muscle soreness.2 They concluded,
"The available evidence from randomised trials carried out mainly in laboratory settings consistently suggests that stretching before or after exercise does not prevent muscle soreness in young healthy adults.
Arguably, the findings of this review are clear enough that further research into the effects of stretching on muscle soreness is not necessary."
In 2011, a study updated the review with research that had been conducted after 2007.1 The conclusion was the same: no effect of stretching before or after a workout in preventing muscle soreness.
"The available evidence from randomised trials suggests that stretching before or after exercise does not produce important reductions in postexercise soreness in healthy adults."
A warm muscle is much better prepared for the workout, so some evidence supports that a warm-up can reduce the perception of soreness. The following are example warm-ups:
- 10-minute treadmill at 3 mph and a slight, 3% incline.3
- 20-minute ergometer (stationary bike) at a moderate intensity (60-70% of maximum heart rate).4
- The present research does not support that static stretching before or after a workout will reduce soreness.
- However, stretching provides many other benefits, so it is still a great choice to do daily.
- Be sure to warm-up prior to physical activity or exercise.
A Side Note on Soreness and Behavior
Note. Those who are new to exercise, or are getting back into a routine, can interpret soreness as physical debility – perceiving oneself as weak and incapable of exercising. These thoughts are dangerous, because they can lead to people quitting their exercise efforts.
In reality, everyone can get sore – those exercising on day 1 or on day 100,000. Also, it is the repair process that provides us with the adaptations that most likely got us working out in the first place (e.g. strength gains, aerobic fitness, and fat loss)!
Start slow, progress yourself over time, and try to choose activities that you enjoy.
Henschke, N., & Lin, C. C. (2011). Stretching before or after exercise does not reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(15), 1249-1250.
Herbert, R. D., de Noronha, M., & Kamper, S. J. (2011). Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. The Cochrane Library.
Law, R. Y., & Herbert, R. D. (2007). Warm-up reduces delayed-onset muscle soreness but cool-down does not: a randomised controlled trial. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, 53(2), 91-95.
Olsen, O., Sjøhaug, M., Van Beekvelt, M., & Mork, P. J. (2012). The effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed onset muscle soreness in the quadriceps muscle: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Human Kinetics, 35(1), 59-68.