To stretch or not to stretch: That is the question.
Some trainers swear it’s essential; others argue that it’s worthless. Some say you shouldn’t even touch a weight until you’ve thoroughly stretched every muscle; others warn that preworkout stretching is counterproductive, even dangerous.
Don’t roll up your mat just yet, though — there’s a reason for the confusion.
“When most people think ‘stretching,’ they think of a runner putting their foot up on a railing, and holding it there for 15 seconds before they run,” says trainer and injury-prevention expert John Rusin, DPT, CSCS, PPSC. But there’s a lot more to flexibility training.
Simple as it sounds, stretching can cover a broad range of activities, Rusin says — from powerful, explosive moves to slower, more soothing ones. And they all play a role in optimizing your fitness, no matter your preferred sport or activity.
3 Types of Stretching:
- This is the type that comes to mind when most people think of stretching: You assume a position that elongates a muscle or set of muscles — by reaching for your toes, for example — and hold the position for 30 seconds or more. Restorative yoga is an example.
- This approach consists of powerful, repeated movements, performed with an extended range of motion, often incorporating athletic movements like reaching, running, or jumping. Think front and high-knee kicks, arm circles, walking lunges, and many other moves familiar to field athletes.
- Probably the least familiar modality to most gym-goers: You get into a stretch and systematically contract areas around the stretching muscles to enhance function and strength. As the name suggests, most moves focus on mobilizing a single joint, and sometimes a single movement in one joint. Variations include proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, functional range conditioning, and many physical-therapy treatments.
By incorporating the right stretching techniques into your routine, you can ensure steady progress in mobility, athleticism, and range of motion — all essential components of an effective and balanced fitness program.
Static Stretching: Classic Flexibility-Builder
The original stretch is an oldie but a goodie. Despite research suggesting that static stretching temporarily reduces strength, most trainers still recommend this approach.
Why? Recent research, including a 2019 meta-review of past studies, indicates that any reduction in strength and power caused by short sessions of static stretching is minimal (less than 2 percent) and short-lived (10 minutes or less). So unless you’re preparing to compete in an athletic event requiring maximal strength and power (tennis or golf, for example), or trying to hit a personal record in a lift, light preworkout stretching should not be a problem.
In fact, the benefits of static stretching often depend on when you do it:
- Before your workout. If you’re about to perform an activity that requires a significant range of motion — a barbell squat, a tour jeté, or a high roundhouse kick, for example — static stretching associated muscles beforehand can be beneficial. For example, if you feel constriction through the hips, performing a hip-flexor stretch before squatting could help, says Rusin.
- After your workout. “Static stretching enhances the parasympathetic, or rest-and-digest, arm of the nervous system,” he notes. “That makes it great to use after exercise, when you’re trying to wind down rather than ramp up.” Postworkout, your muscles are also loose, warm, and engorged with blood — a perfect time to lengthen them with minimal risk of injury.
- Between workouts. Are there chronically tight areas of your body that don’t seem to relax no matter what you do? If so, it’s a good idea to stretch those areas on off days, during breaks at work, or before bed on workout days, holding the positions for up to five minutes each. Tight hip flexors, calves, pectorals, and glutes are common among desk workers, so stretch those areas regularly.
Whenever you do a static stretch, be specific about your alignment and focus, and be sure you’re stretching the right area: A few inches can mean the difference between an effective and an ineffective stretch.
Additionally, be prepared to spend some time in each stretch. “A pitfall with static stretching is that people don’t hold the stretch long enough to see any change,” explains Mike Thomson, CSCS, USATF, a Life Time personal trainer.
“Many people pull their arm across the body to stretch their triceps and lateral deltoid or grab their foot behind their body to stretch their quad — but hold it for only 10 to 20 seconds. That doesn’t do much to increase flexibility over time.” Aim for a minimum of one to two minutes in each static stretch.
And “static” doesn’t mean you should remain motionless. Instead, oscillate slightly in, out, and around the stretched position. Breathe deeply, Rusin advises, and try to settle farther into the stretch on each exhale.
“Small movements create more feedback from the nervous system.”
Standing Adductor Stretch
- Place your hands on a table or bench.
- Straighten your arms and step back from the bench a few feet.
- Keeping your feet parallel, step your feet out until they are about two shoulder widths apart.
- Keeping your lower back in its natural arch and your head and neck aligned with your spine, lower your chest toward the floor until you feel a deep stretch in your adductors (inner thighs) and hamstrings (backs of your legs).
- Maintaining excellent alignment in your torso, bend your right leg slightly, sinking into the stretch.
- Hold for five seconds, then repeat the move on the other side.
- Continue alternating sides for 60 seconds.
Low-Lunge Hip-Flexor Stretch
- Assume a half-kneeling position: right knee on the floor, left foot standing, torso upright, both knees and your left hip bent 90 degrees.
- Keeping your hips and shoulders square, tuck your pelvis as if attempting to point your tailbone between your legs.
- Maintaining this position, slowly rock your pelvis forward several inches until you feel a deep stretch in the front of your right hip.
- Continue oscillating in and out of the stretch for 60 seconds on each side.
- Stand behind a doorway and raise your arms out to the sides so that your elbows are about 5 inches higher than your shoulders.
- Draw your head and chin backward (as if making a double chin) and keep them there throughout the movement.
- Place the insides of your forearms against the sides of the jamb.
- Take a deep breath in, and on an exhale, press your chest through the doorway.
- Remain there for 60 seconds, breathing deeply, and attempting to press your chest farther forward on each exhale
Dynamic Stretching: Prepping to Move
Nothing gets you ready to move like dynamic stretching — large, controlled, repetitive movements that take your joints through a large range of motion.
Depending on your goals and fitness level, these moves can be relatively low intensity (think ankle or wrist circles), high intensity (walking lunges, jumping jacks, and inchworms), or somewhere in between.
The benefits are many. “Dynamic stretching is something I do before all exercise,” says Thomson. “It’s good for taking the joints and muscles through their full range of motion,” as well as increasing blood flow and instilling good movement patterns. “It’s also beneficial for the brain to know it’s game time.”
The best time to do dynamic stretching is prior to working out, when you’re trying to ramp up your muscles and nervous system to perform high-tension, high-intensity exercise with a large range of motion. After a few minutes, you’ll feel warmer, looser, more aligned, and ready to attack your workout.
It’s also a great option whenever you need a shot of energy during the day.
One caveat: Good form is essential. This type of warm-up requires substantial control and stability. In general, that means your hips and shoulders should be square, your neck should be aligned with your spine, your shoulders should be relaxed, and your breath should be smooth and continuous. Twisting, shrugging, bending, and holding your breath are all compensations for limited movement in the target area, explains Rusin.
The first few times you perform the moves below, use a mirror: They should look and feel smooth and athletic. If you can’t manage these (or any other) dynamic stretches with control and precision, stick to static stretches until you’ve become more comfortable in the correct positions.
Superman Stiff-Leg Deadlift
- Stand upright in a hallway, field, or other open space.
- Step forward with your right foot.
- Keeping your left leg long, your left foot pointed toward the floor, and your lower back in its natural arch, hinge forward on your right hip, extending your arms forward, until your torso, arms, and left leg form a straight line parallel to the floor.
- Pause in the extended position with your right leg slightly bent. You should feel a deep stretch in the hamstrings of your supporting leg.
- Slowly return to an upright position, lowering your arms to your sides.
- Repeat the move on the other side.
- Continue for a total of six to eight reps per side.
- Stand upright in a hallway, field, or other open space.
- Step forward with your right foot.
- Keeping your torso upright, raise your left knee to your chest, and take hold of your ankle with your right hand and your knee with your left.
- Flexing your left foot, pull your ankle as close to your belly button as possible, supporting your left knee in your left hand until you feel a deep stretch in your left glute.
- Lower your left foot to the floor, step forward with your right foot, and repeat for a total of six to eight reps per side.
Targeted Mobility: Working Your Edge
This newer form of stretching is used by practitioners of many different systems, including proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), fascial stretch therapy (FST), and functional range conditioning (FRC). Its purpose is not only to increase a joint’s range of motion but to improve your ability to control and generate force throughout that entire range as well.
“Every joint has both an active and a passive range of motion,” explains fitness coach and Kinstretch instructor Beth Lewis, FRC.
To illustrate, try this: Stand, raise your right knee in front of you as high as you can, and take note of how high it goes. That’s your active range of motion — the distance you can move the joint without assistance.
Then, Lewis says, lower your knee and repeat — this time, hugging your knee close to your chest with your right arm: You’ll easily get your knee a few inches higher. That’s your passive range — the distance the joint can move when you apply force and relax into the stretch.
“There’s always a difference,” she says.
If that difference is large — that is, your joints can achieve ranges of motion that your muscles on their own can’t control — the chances of injury when you fall, jump, or lift a heavy weight increase.
“With the right training, you can close the gap between your active and passive range,” she says. This will reduce injury risk and increase your capacity for safe and powerful athletic movement.
These improvements rarely come easily or quickly, which is why experts recommend practicing targeted mobility work with a qualified professional. The drills below, however, will give you a taste and help improve the functional range in your major joints.
Lewis suggests you practice the moves before workouts as a warm-up or between workout days.
“You can do many of these moves sitting in a chair,” she says. “The key is to give your brain constant input that your joints can move that way.”
Targeted Mobility Moves
- Assume an all-fours posture, hands below shoulders, knees below hips.
- Round the back upward (into the cat position) dropping your chin to your chest.
- Keeping your head and the rest of your back still, raise your tailbone upward, creating a slight arch in your lower back.
- Slowly arch your midback, upper back, and neck in sequence, attempting to articulate each joint of the spine until your back is fully arched in cow position. Raise your head at the end of the move so that you are looking forward. Don’t pull your shoulder blades together; simply articulate the spine between them.
- Starting at the tailbone, tuck your pelvis and sequentially articulate your spine the other way until you are back to the cat position.
- Repeat the move three to five times, attempting to slow the move. Articulate each joint of the spine as clearly as you can with each repetition.
Scapular-Controlled Articular Rotations
- Sit or stand in an upright position with your head stacked on top of your spine, arms hanging by your sides, and your feel parallel and shoulder width apart.
- Breathing freely throughout the movement, shrug your shoulders up as high as possible.
- Without craning your neck forward, slowly roll your shoulders back as far as possible, pulling your shoulder blades together.
- Lower your shoulders down, pressing them toward your hips.
- Bring your shoulders as far forward as possible, keeping your head in neutral.
- Continue slowly circling your shoulders back three to five times, then reverse the move for an additional three to five repetitions.
Hip-Controlled Articular Rotations
- Assume an all-fours posture with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips.
- Keep your arms straight and your torso as flat as possible throughout the move.
- Slowly extend your left leg directly behind you, keeping your toes pointed downward.
- Turn your foot outward and lift your knee outward to your side (as if getting on a horse).
- Continue circling your thigh, drawing your knee as close as possible to your chest.
- Extend your leg behind you and repeat the move for five to eight repetitions, then perform the move with your opposite leg.
The Science Behind the Stretch
When a muscle feels tight — whether it’s because you’ve charged into a new activity, performed repetitive movement patterns, or settled into sedentary postures — you instinctively stretch it out. This might feel great in the moment, but the effect is usually fleeting. To get the most out of each stretch, it’s important to stay with it long enough to convince your brain and nervous system to release the tension.
Certain structures in your muscles and tendons, including muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), send signals to adjust course when a muscle stretches too far or too fast, in order to protect the joint from injury. It’s important to hold the stretch for more than about 30 seconds — or move in and out of the stretch position repeatedly — to encourage these structures to release their hold, explains fitness coach and Kinstretch instructor Beth Lewis, FRC.
With practice, proper stretching raises the body’s tolerance for larger ranges of motion, and the effects of stretching become more sustained. But if you stop stretching, the muscles will return to their shortened state. “It’s a use-it-or-lose-it proposition,” says Lewis.
Long, sustained stretches — lasting up to several minutes — may over time elongate muscles and tendons. But short of that, stretching is less a matter of mechanically increasing a muscle’s length, and more about teaching your brain and nervous system that you’re safe at larger joint angles.
“You’re not only stretching tissue,” explains trainer and injury-prevention expert John Rusin, DPT, CSCS, PPSC. “You’re educating your joints.”
Stretching, then, is a form of movement practice that involves all of you: brain, nervous system, and supporting joints — as well as the tissues you’re stretching. Its effects, Rusin cautions, will be significantly reduced if you perform the movements while distracted. “If you’re not focusing and breathing deeply as you perform these stretches, they become almost useless.”
This article was originally written by Andrew Heffernan, Experience Life contributing editor, and appeared as “Stretch Your Fitness” in the April 2021 issue of Experience Life.