This is where stretching comes in to ease tension and stay nimble. “When stretching, you can focus on the motions and feel your body physically relaxing and loosening up,” says Kenny Cruz, a certified personal trainer with Blink Fitness. “More specifically, stretching increases blood flow and flexibility.”
But not all stretches are created equal. Some are all too easy to overdo, leading to injury. Others simply aren't very effective. Here's how to make sure the time you spend working on flexibility is put to good use with safe and effective movements.
First things first: Know when to do dynamic or static stretches
Before a workout, you want to focus on dynamic stretches to get your body in motion so it’s well-equipped to tackle a more rigorous workout and intensity level shortly after. Think: walking lunges and leg swings, for example.
“The difference between dynamic and static stretching is that dynamic stretches are done in a continuous motion while static stretches are done in a fixed position,” Cruz says.
While you shouldn’t do static stretching prior to working out—since cold muscles are more likely to tear and static stretches could temporarily weaken them—carving out time for it afterward is a great way to increase your range of motion and flexibility, as well as ease tension in those tight, sore, and stiff muscles.
According to Cruz, the heel-to-butt stretch (targeting the quads and hip flexors) is a great example that can be either dynamic and static in form, based on how it’s done.
For a dynamic approach, here’s Cruz’s advice:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and tighten your core for balance. (Hold onto a wall if you need extra stability.)
- Bring your heel toward the butt, grab ahold of the foot and bring the heel closer, then release the foot and go back to a standing position. “Don’t hold your foot against your butt, but rather try to do this exercise in one motion without pausing,” he says.
- Repeat 10 to 20 times total.
The difference in the static approach is that you hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds before repeating the stretch on the other side.
Some stretches are better than others
Whether dynamic or static, not all stretches are equally effective in promoting greater flexibility. And several are easily taken too far—you can strain the muscles, causing injury. Ditch these four poses and swap in Cruz’s recommendations for more beneficial stretches instead to maximize your efforts and results.
“One of the worst stretches, in my opinion, is the sit-and-reach, where you sit down with your legs straight in front of you and you reach to touch your toes, then hold it to stretch the hamstrings and lower back,” says Cruz. This position can strain your lower back and knees; it’s common to take it too far and get injured. What's more, it's not super effective for increasing flexibility.
Instead, Cruz recommends releasing your lower back with a seated spinal twist: Start sitting on the floor, with legs straight out in front of you. Take your left foot and place it flat on the ground and on the outside of your right knee. “Place your right elbow on the outside of your left leg, turn your chest, head and eyes to the left and hold the pose for about a minute before releasing and repeating on the other side,” Cruz says.
2. Straight-legged hamstring stretch
Rather than reaching down to the ground with straight legs to stretch the hamstrings—which can overtax the muscles—try walking knee grabs. “They are a good warm-up stretch for your legs,” says Cruz, especially before working out since they offer the benefits of a dynamic stretch.
Start by standing with your feet together and raise one leg by bending the knee. Grab it with both hands and pull it up toward your chest until you feel a stretch in your glutes, he says. Bring your leg down to walk forward, and then alternate the legs with each step, repeating this movement for 30 seconds.
“This will improve hip mobility and increase flexibility in the glutes and hamstrings,” he says.
3. Assisted pec stretch
A common arm and shoulder opener is the assisted pec stretch: To do it, you keep your hands behind you as you grab a bar or pole, or have a partner pull your arms back to give you that extra boost. “If done incorrectly, you can put too much strain on your shoulder and it can lead to injury,” says Cruz.
This stretch needs to be done with someone who understands the mobility of the body’s joints and is professionally trained to lend support (not just your gym buddy).
Unless you have access to an expert, instead, do arm circles as a dynamic stretch for the shoulders and arm muscles. “To perform an arm circle properly, stand up straight and keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and then hold your arms out to your sides at shoulder height to begin moving arms forward in a circular motion, until you find a rhythm,” says Cruz.
A tip? Begin with small circles and increase slowly, making them bigger in range so you can fully maximize the stretch without overdoing it. Aim for 30 seconds.
4. Hurdler stretch
The hurdler stretch—where you’re on the ground with one leg straight in front of you and the other bent behind you—puts a lot of pressure on the knee, says Cruz.
“I prefer the 90-90 stretch, where you start on the ground (preferably on a yoga mat for comfort) and place one leg forward with your knee and lower leg resting on the ground at a 90-degree angle,” says Cruz. “Then position your other leg 90 degrees out to the side and with your knee and lower leg at a 90-degree angle behind you, as you focus on keeping your back straight.”
Hold the position for 30 seconds per side, twice total, to loosen the hip muscles. “Which for a lot of people is one of their tightest areas,” he says. “The 90-90 stretch focuses on boosting flexibility within the hip flexors, adductors and abductors, as well as in the psoas and piriformis muscles.”
If the full 90-90 position is too difficult, start by just doing the stretch with the forward leg, and let your other leg rest comfortably, Cruz says. Or use a yoga block to ease the pressure on your rear leg, and practice until you’re at the point where you no longer need any extra assistance.
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