The truth about stretching

Studies have shown that the best way to get your body ready for competition is dynamic stretching. Ed Betz/AP

You know the rule: Always stretch before practice.

But research says that static stretching before exercise — such as extending your leg onto a fence and holding the pose for 20 seconds — may be counterproductive and could even increase your risk of injury.

Instead of priming muscles for a workout, you may be keeping them in a relaxed state, making it harder for them to fire up and contract when needed. Some studies have found that static stretching before playing a sport can actually make you slower and weaker by as much as 30 percent.

A better way to prep your body is to incorporate dynamic (aka active or moving) stretching to get your heart rate up, make your blood flow and increase your total range of motion before diving into an activity, says Sergio Rojas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who has worked with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and does a weekly fitness segment on Chicago’s NBC5 News.

A major study published in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that knee injuries were cut nearly in half among female collegiate soccer players who followed a warm-up routine that included both dynamic exercises and static stretching.

Rojas suggests this lunge matrix as a way to loosen up properly (do each move, one right after the other, without stopping):

1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, both arms at your sides. Step forward with your left leg and reach both hands about 6 to 12 inches in front of your left knee. Step back and switch legs, repeating the same arm movement with your right leg.

2. Step forward with your left leg and reach with both arms overhead and back, driving your hips forward. Follow the same arm movement on your right leg.

3.Step forward with your left leg, arms out to your sides (with elbows bent 90 degrees and fingers pointing toward the sky), and lean to the left. Switch legs, lean right. Repeat this movement, this time leaning to the opposite side (i.e., step with your left leg, then lean right — and vice versa).

4. Step forward with your left leg, with your arms straight out in front of you, and rotate left. Switch legs, then rotate right. Repeat this movement, rotating in the opposite direction (step with your left leg, rotate right, etc.).

5. Combining moves 2 and 4, step with your left leg, rotate your right arm across your body to the left and lift your left arm overhead and to the right. Then step with your right leg, rotate your left arm to the right, lift your right arm overhead and to the left. Repeat twice.