Stretching (also known as building flexibility and mobility) is an incredibly important element of athletic performance that is often overlooked. Yes, there is an ongoing debate about exactly what kind of stretching is best, but there is no debate about the fact that everyone should do it. Regular stretching decreases muscle tension, reduces pain and improves range of motion.
But what kind of stretches should you do?
There are two major categories of stretches: static and dynamic. Static is the name for traditional stretches where you put a muscle on stretch and hold it for a period of time. Dynamic activation is the name for any motion that extends your muscles while moving, like swinging your legs or arms or doing lunges before a workout. Each type of stretching has an opposite effect on the nervous system.
Before you exercise, dynamic activation is the preferred approach. Dynamic activation causes excitatory neuromuscular signals to be sent from your brain to your muscles and increases range of motion, blood flow and muscle temperature, all of which help with exercise.
Static stretching is best done when you are cooling down or when you're just stretching to relax. It helps to align your muscle fibres and reduces tension. So do this type of stretching after a workout.
See the cardio warm-up for examples of dynamic stretches you can do before your workout and this stretching routine for static stretches you should do post-workout.