Stretching is an important part of any fitness routine. It can help relieve muscle tightness, increase flexibility and reduce post-workout soreness. While more research is needed, some studies suggest stretching may even increase athletic performance and help prevent injuries to joints, muscles and tendons. But not all stretching is beneficial.
Are the stretches you’re doing before or after your workout doing more harm than good? Common mistakes people often make when stretching include: failing to warm up properly, overstretching and performing the wrong exercises, or the right exercises in the wrong sequence.
Here are some tips to be sure you're stretching the right way.
Warm up before you stretch. Stretching should not be part of your pre-workout warm-up. Never stretch when your muscles are cold — doing so could result in injury. Before you stretch, take five to 10 minutes to warm up your muscles with a brisk walk or a light jog.
Keep it even. Symmetry in your workout, including stretching, is important to maintaining equal flexibility and strength on both sides of your body. Stretching both sides of your body equally is also important if you want to prevent injuries.
Focus on major muscle groups. Your stretching routine should include stretches for every major muscle group, including calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders.
Tailor stretches to your exercise or sport. Some research suggests that tailoring your stretching routine to your specific sport or activity can be beneficial. Consider your particular sport and focus on stretching muscles that are most prone to injury in that sport.
Keep in mind, however, that although you may spend more time stretching particular muscle groups, such as your hamstrings, it is still important to get in a full-body stretch that touches on every major muscle group.
Don’t bounce. It's an old wives’ tale that bouncing while you stretch can increase flexibility. In fact, it can actually lead to injury. Rather than bouncing while you stretch, hold your stretch position for 30 to 60 seconds before moving on to the next muscle group.
Which stretches are best?
There are numerous stretches you can do to help increase flexibility and relieve muscle tightness. Here are some of the most common stretches that hit the major muscle groups.
Hamstring stretch. Sit on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you. Gently lean forward from the hips until you feel a stretch in the back of your thighs.
Glutes/IT band stretch. Lie on your back, bending your right knee while keeping your right foot flat on the floor. Cross your left leg over your right thigh, resting your left ankle on your right knee. Grab the back of your right thigh with both hands and pull both legs toward you. Repeat on the other side.
Calf stretch. While standing, step forward with one foot and lift your toes off the ground while putting your weight on your back leg. Repeat on the other side.
Hip flexor stretch. Stand on one foot and pull your other foot to your buttocks, keeping your knee pointed at the ground and your hip square. For added stability, hold onto the back of a chair, a table or a wall.
Lower back stretch. Sit with your legs out in front of you and cross one leg over the other, placing that foot flat on the ground near your other knee. If your left leg is crossed over the right, twist your torso to the left and vice versa. Repeat on the other side.
Shoulder stretch. Bring your right arm across your body, holding your right elbow with your left hand. Pull your elbow toward you as far as you can. Repeat on the other side.
Front shoulder and chest stretch.While standing, hold onto a post or door frame at shoulder height with one arm. While keeping that arm straight, rotate your body to the opposite direction until you feel a stretch. Repeat on the other side.
If you have questions about the best way to stretch, talk to a certified professional trainer. People with joint replacements should not attempt these stretches and should instead consult their orthopedics provider to learn about which stretches are right for them. If you experience significant pain while working out or stretching, see your doctor.