"To stretch or not to stretch." That wasn't exactly Hamlet's question. The Prince of Denmark had matters of state to consider, especially the most effective method to avenge the murder of his father. Getting ready for his next fencing lesson had taken low priority.
But for the rest of us who aren't Nordic princes, matters of fitness are in fact akin to matters of state, namely the state of our bodies. Your fitness choices are critically important to your health and well-being. Also, your overall approach to fitness activities matters a great deal, such as how you get ready to do the exercise things you're going to do.
The question of stretching has been debated for many years, going back to the early days of popularized forms of strength training in the 1960s.1,2,3 "To stretch or not to stretch" really was and continues to be the question. Proponents of stretching actively and vigorously defend their position. Those who believe that stretching has no value, or may even be harmful, are equally assertive. There is evidence in the scientific literature to support both sides. A person who wishes to derive the greatest benefit from her time spent exercising is, like Hamlet, in quite a quandary.
But there's no need to vacillate and mimic Hamlet's notorious exploration of doubt and indecision. The way forward, as always, is to do what works for you. For example, if you are naturally flexible there might not be a need for stretching. People who can just flop over and put their hands on the floor from a standing position already have one benefit that stretching provides. Their hamstrings and lower back muscles are already pretty loose. A contrasting example is the person with naturally tight muscles. Many such people would actually strain a back muscle or a hamstring if they tried to bend over and touch the floor without any preparation.
In the world of fitness, what works for one person does not necessarily work for another. If you're a person who would benefit from stretching, you need to stretch. But not everybody will benefit. For some, time spent stretching is time wasted. You find out by stretching before a few exercise sessions. If your muscles feel "long" and limber and your joints feel freely moveable, then stretching is probably a good thing to do. If your muscles and joints don't feel any different from the way they usually do, in other words, you were already pretty loose to begin with and stretching didn't add any noticeable benefit, then you're probably a person who doesn't need to stretch.
If you're stretching, the next question becomes whether to stretch before or after exercise. Again, there are proponents of each approach and some authorities suggest that stretching both before and after is the way to go. Explore the various possibilities and determine the most effective method for you. Most importantly, get regular vigorous exercise and have fun doing it.
1Gartley RM, Prosser JL: Stretching to prevent musculoskeletal injuries. An approach to workplace wellness. AAOHN 59(6):247-252, 2011
2Stojanovic MD, Ostojic SM: Stretching and injury prevention in football: current perspectives. Res Sports Med 19(2):73-91, 2011
3Samukawa M, et al: The effects of dynamic stretching on plantar flexor muscle-tendon tissue properties. Man Ther August 2, 2011 (Epub ahead of print)