When someone tells you to stretch, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Do you picture some classic toe touches? Calf stretches? Maybe a few yoga poses?
Well, whatever you pictured, it probably didn’t seem too complicated (unless you imagined one of those crazy flexible dance stretches). And that’s how most stretches are — they aren’t meant to be super hard to do.
But there’s a bit of irony there: stretching is generally pretty simple to execute, yet it can be a surprisingly complex topic to understand. You may not think stretching is all that complicated, but trust us, there’s a lot to unpack.
So, before you start (or continue) self-prescribing stretch exercises into your training, let’s review a few basics about stretching and make sure you’re doing them the RIGHT way!
General Benefits of Stretching
There’s no question that stretching can be a great habit to practice regularly — it’s known to decrease tension and soreness in muscles, increase your range of motion, and help with improving your flexibility and posture. Plus, it promotes better circulation and oxygen flow, helping ease mental tension and allowing your body to function in a more relaxed state.
But, like most good things, stretching should be done in moderation. More specifically, stretching should be done knowledgeably.
In order to truly maximize the benefits you can gain from stretching, you can’t just add it to every workout or use it as a recovery method for all your aches and pains. It’s super important to know when to do what kinds of stretches, or you may find yourself inadvertently hindering your own exercise productivity and wellness.
This brings up an important distinction — the types of stretches you do will have different impacts on your body. And we don’t mean the distinction between specific stretches for individual muscle groups, like hamstrings versus quadriceps; rather, it’s important to know the differences between the styles of stretching, like dynamic versus static stretches.
Both have their own methods and benefits, so let’s review them to get a better idea of when it’s best to incorporate both into your routine!
What is Dynamic Stretching?
Just by the name alone, you can probably get an idea of what these stretches look like…
You guessed it — they’re dynamic!
Well, maybe “dynamic” seems a bit exaggerated to describe them, but you get the idea. These stretches are all about movement, so you’ll probably find yourself moving between different stretch poses or rotating a limb or two (think warm-ups like shoulder shrugs, arm circles, twisted lunges, leg swings, or moving quad and hamstring stretches).
Dynamic stretching prepares your muscles for physical activity by increasing blood flow to your muscles and activating muscle groups that are needed for sport-specific activities. These stretches often replicate the motions of specific physical activities, allowing your muscles to be ready and primed for these movements. And that preparedness typically leads to a positive impact on your overall speed, power, and agility during exercise!
When Should You Do Dynamic Stretches?
Since dynamic stretching basically wakes up your muscles, it’s most beneficial to do right before you engage in physical activity!
Every athletic activity can benefit from a dynamic warm up — running, lifting, specific sports, etc. The more warmed up you are, the more your muscles are prepared to handle the demanding motions of your exercise.
Of course, the types of dynamic stretches you do will vary depending on your physical activity, since you want to be sure you’re activating the right muscles. Many dynamic stretches will help activate multiple muscle groups at once, so with the right combination of progressive stretches, you may end up with a shortened warm up!
What is Static Stretching?
Static stretching is what a lot of people first imagine when they think about stretching in general.
Static stretches don’t focus on movement at all — once you’re in the stretch, you hold it for a certain amount of time (think toe touches, standing quad stretches, or certain yoga poses). Unlike dynamic stretching, static stretches isolate individual muscle groups and work on increasing muscle length.
Lengthening your muscles is generally positive; it can help release built-up tension in your muscles, which is why so many people recommend stretch breaks for people who work desk-jobs. Plus, it can also improve your flexibility and range of motion, which is pretty handy! (But keep in mind — if you’re aiming to be more flexible, make sure you have the right strength and motor control to support it. This is covered in more detail later in this article.)
When Should I Do Static Stretches?
But, as great as static stretches are, they aren’t the best option for every scenario.
Static stretching — and this is key — is most beneficial AFTER physical activity.
Although static stretches definitely have their own benefits, they can actually work against you if you do them before working out or while your muscles are “cold.” Research has shown that static stretching prior to your workouts can actually impair your performance because it decreases the blood flow to your muscles and doesn’t prepare the muscles for more rigorous activity. And that negatively impacts your speed, power, and agility, which definitely isn’t ideal for an athlete.
Plus, lengthening your muscles generally doesn’t do much for activated muscles anyway. So even if these stretches weren’t bad for you before exercising, they wouldn’t really be all that helpful for you, either.
So, instead of being at a disadvantage, make sure you save those static stretches for your cool-downs! Post-workout is when lengthening your muscles and relieving tension will benefit your body the most.
Practical Implementation for Stretching
Alright — now you know the difference between static and dynamic stretches and what they're specifically good for. That’s great and all, but it still might be intimidating to incorporate them into your warm ups and cool downs appropriately.
Competitive EDGE’s physical therapists took some time to put together a few examples to get you started. Granted, there are way too many stretches to explain them all. Plus, as you know, the stretches will probably change depending on your workout or physical activity.
BUT, there are a handful of basic stretches that our physical therapists like to use, so we’ll walk through what they are and how to do them so you can try them out for your own training routines!
Stretching Before Your Workout
Let’s start out by getting you moving with some dynamic stretches! (Since these stretches require a lot of movement, they might be hard to visualize with just words and images — don’t hesitate to follow along in this video! The stretches we review here start around 3:15.)
Start out by doing a few lunges with thoracic rotations — you can either have your hands on your head or put your arms out to the sides. Take one big lunge step with your left foot and rotate your torso to the left, helping to open up the hips as well as spine. Rotate back until you’re facing forward again, step your feet back together, and then repeat the process with your right foot. (Make sure you rotate to the side of the stepping foot each time!)
Next, move into some lateral lunges. Take a big step out to your side, making sure that both your feet are flat on the ground and your toes are pointed straight ahead. Maintain a forward torso to allow for improved posterior muscle activation. Keep your feet in this position as you shift your body weight over your left leg; then shift your body weight over your right leg. Return to the upright position and pivot so you are facing the opposite side, then repeat shifting your body weight over both legs.
Next up are some spiderman lunges! Move into a push-up position, but keep your hands next to each other, flat on the ground. Then, bring your left knee up until it’s outside your left wrist. Walk your hands forward until both your feet are next to each other again, then repeat the motion with your right foot.
From there, you can transition into the inchworm stretch. Start standing up straight, then fold at the waist and reach down so your fingertips touch the ground — walk your fingers out until your palms are flat, then use your hands to walk out as far as you comfortably can! You should end up close to a high plank position. Now, tip-toe your feet all the way back up to your hands (or as close as you can get them). You will feel a stretch in the hamstrings as you walk the feet further toward the hands! Make sure you keep your back and legs straight throughout the entire exercise (you may need to shorten the distance you walk your feet up)!
Lastly, end your warm-up with what’s called “the world's greatest stretch”! This one is sort of like a mix of all of the previous stretches combined into one (so the name is pretty accurate). Take a big lunge step forward with your left foot and place both hands on the ground to the inside of your foot. Then, bend your left elbow and try to get your forearm to go flat against the ground before extending your arm and reaching up over your head. From there, use your heel to push against the ground and bring your hip back — extend your knee until it’s straight, then step into your next lunge and repeat with your right side.
There you have it — a few basic dynamic stretches that’ll help get your muscles ready and raring to go for that next workout or game. But don’t forget! Also include any necessary sport-specific stretches too, like hip openers for soccer players or arm rotations for hockey players!
Stretching After Your Workout
Now that you’ve got your warm-up, let’s switch to the cool-down! (Though, theoretically, there was something in between.) Remember, with cool down stretches, you won’t be moving around as much, so aim to hold each stretch for about a minute!
Start out with a simple hamstring stretch — get into a kneeling position and extend your right leg in front of you until your knee is straight. Bend forward, grab your toe, and stretch out!
Next, stretch out your hip flexors! Resume a neutral kneeling position with one knee on the ground (like a proposal). Think about tucking your hips under; your pelvis should be vertical or even slightly tilted towards the back. Press your hip forward by squeezing your glutes, but don’t let your forward leg collapse and your body sink forward. Raise overhead the arm on the same side as the hip you’re stretching and bend slightly to the opposite side (but don’t go too far!).
To hit your quads, you don’t have to change much. In that same kneeling position, return to neutral and lift your lower leg up off the ground and towards your buttocks. Reach behind you and grab the top of your foot.
Now it’s time to stand up for some adductor stretches. Place your feet shoulder width apart and shift your body weight over one leg. Hold this stretch for one minute, then shift your weight over the other leg and repeat. (If this one sounds familiar, it’s because it’s basically the lateral lunge without the lunging part!)
From there, just repeat the same exercises in reverse order (quadricep, hip flexor, then hamstring) for your opposite leg!
Voila — you’re all cooled down!
Not too bad, right? Stretching isn’t all that difficult once you get the hang of it! There’s also a variety of upper body stretches that may come in handy depending on your sport of choice. Here, we’ve focused primarily on lower body stretches.
Common Stretching Myths
Hooray! Now that we’ve covered all that’s great about stretching it’s time to start doing it all the time. How great is this??
Well, actually… we need to talk.
Unfortunately, just because something is easy and good for you doesn’t mean it should be done all the time. It’s counterintuitive — a lot of people turn to stretching as a first resort for pretty much any kind of muscle problem or pain.
But, before you go running off to stretch 24/7, there are a few myths about stretching in general that should be cleared up.
Myth: If You're in Pain, You Should Stretch
It’s a fair assumption to make, since static stretching is supposed to relieve tension — but you know what they say about making assumptions.
In reality, whether or not you should stretch depends on the pain or injury.
While stretching is generally helpful, it’s by no means a cure-all solution to any and every kind of pain. Until you know more about the specific pain and what’s causing it, it’s best not to immediately turn to stretching, otherwise you may actually end up worsening the issue.
For example, a pulled muscle or muscle strain typically creates small tears or damage in the muscle. If you were to stretch right after the injury, you could potentially worsen the pre-existing damage.
Plus, it’s important to know that just stretching typically won’t rid you of pain — it’ll only help you gain overall mobility and range of motion. That might sound good, but without knowing how to control those newly gained skills, you might actually be at a higher risk of injury.
If you’re restricted in movement and experiencing a lot of pain, stretching will only be helpful if it's paired with motor control strength training. This will allow your body to gain mobility AND maintain control of it, that way you aren’t increasing your chances of injury.
So the next time you have an unidentified pain, don’t jump straight into stretching — make sure you know what you’re dealing with first! (That’s just a good rule of thumb to follow, anyway.)
Myth: Stretching Relieves Tight Muscles
Well, stretching is supposed to release muscle tension, so of course it’d relieve tightness, right?
Oh, if only it were that simple...
Yes, stretching can help loosen up your muscles and get rid of some of that terrible, built-up stress in your shoulders or back or wherever — but only in the short term. Realistically, you’ve probably noticed that; stretching typically won’t cure that long-term stiffness.
Most of the time, muscle tightness is actually caused by bigger picture, biomechanical issues. Muscle tightness is based more on your movement and biomechanics (or lack thereof, sometimes).
That isn’t to say that stretching will worsen the tightness — just know that it isn’t addressing the root cause of the problem and likely won’t relieve the tightness long term.
Myth: Stretching Decreases Injury Risk
This one — this one has to be true, right?? Not only does it actually sound true, but it’d be so, so great if it was!
But, just like the other myths, it’s not that simple.
The good news, though, is that it’s not necessarily untrue. It’s just not fully proven — there actually isn’t much research about whether or not stretching can actually decrease risk of injury.
The current belief is that it probably can help, at least in the long run. After all, it’s natural for some muscle tightness to occur for a majority of people, and over time, that stress can result in injury. So, by that logic, stretching would alleviate some of that stress and ultimately decrease the chances of injury.
If you think about it though, considering how much research is out there regarding biomechanics and muscle tightness, that’s a pretty loose conclusion to settle on. Ultimately, there’s no set conclusion that stretching will decrease risk of injury. In fact, as mentioned before, static stretching before exercise can actually increase risk of injury, so it kind of depends.
But hey, as long as it’s done well and at the right time, stretching is still a great tool to have in your training toolbox. Even if it doesn’t actually lower your risk of injury, don’t sell it short of other benefits!
Ultimately, stretching should be your lifelong friend! Even if you can’t use it as the solution for all muscle aches and pains, you can trust it to do the trick when you need to wake up your body in prep for your next game.
Now that you’ve got a better handle on how to take advantage of stretching benefits, give them some love in your training routine!