For many people, stretching exercises probably fall on the “things I should do but don’t” list.
After all, it’s easy to forgo stretching, given all the other responsibilities that demand your time and attention. Here’s the thing: Stretching exercises come with some *serious* benefits for your health and fitness. Making it a regular part of your wellness routine can reduce your risk of injury, support you as you age, and help you relax (more on all this to come!).
Ideally, you should be stretching every day. And that makes sense when you consider that elements of your everyday life—like sitting at a desk all day or standing and walking around for hours on end, as some jobs require—can lead to tight muscles.
Convinced to start incorporating more stretching exercises in your routine? You’re in the right place.
This head-to-toe stretching guide contains everything you need to know about the benefits of stretching exercises, the most effective stretches for head-to-toe release, helpful props, and must-know form tips (including common mistakes to avoid!)—all from trusted physical therapists and fitness trainers.
Read on to discover a more flexible you.
Meet the experts:
Winnie Yu, PT, DPT, CPT, is a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City.
Rachel Tavel, PT, DPT, CSCS, is the director of content at the healthcare platform Wellen.
Tatiana Lampa, CPT, is a personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and the creator of the Training with T app.
Benefits Of Stretching
- Avoid injury▸ Stretching helps improve your flexibility and, as a result, your range of motion. The ability to move your joints through their full ranges of motion helps protect against injury, Yu says. Lack of range of motion was identified as one of the factors that highly increased the risk of shoulder injuries in a 2020 review published by Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach.
- Age gracefully▸ Since stretching can help you maintain your mobility, it’s an important piece of aging healthfully and promoting longevity, says Tavel. Age-related loss of mobility can occur with routine joint usage patterns, according to an older study published in Age. And shoulder range of motion generally decreases over time, a recent study in JSES International found.
- Prep for exercise▸ Dynamic stretching (which we'll get into next) improves blood flow to your muscles and primes them for movement, Yu explains. That improved circulation helps your cells get the oxygen they need for athletic activity.
- Feel good overall▸ Stretching can help you feel more comfortable and pain-free as you move about your life, Yu says. On the flip side, shortened and tight muscles put you at risk for joint pain.
- Unwind more effectively▸ Stretching is, no doubt, relaxing. In fact, static stretching was associated with parasympathetic (or, “rest and digest”) nervous system activity, an older study in the American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found. Yoga stretching, in particular, may enhance parasympathetic nerve activity and positively impact stress hormones, a more recent study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found.
Dynamic Stretching Vs. Static Stretching, Explained
Stretching exercises generally fall into two categories: static and dynamic. Here's what that means.
STATIC STRETCHING: a prolonged hold
- When: post-workout, for relaxation any time
- How to: hold for 30 to 60 seconds
- Example: overhead triceps stretch
DYNAMIC STRETCHING: taking a joint through its range of motion, often mirroring the activity you’re about to do
- When: before a workout and to start your day
- How to: perform one set of 10 to 15 reps
- Example: arm swings
Knowledge boost: Static and dynamic aren’t the only way to describe stretches. You can also use the concepts of flexion, extension, and twist. “Flexion means that you’re essentially closing off an angle,” Yu explains. Similarly, Lampa describes it as a folding motion (like a standing toe touch to stretch your hamstring). Extension is the opposite. For example, opening up your hips in a bridge. Meanwhile, Lampa offers the world's greatest stretch as an example of a movement that incorporates a thoracic spine twist (and adds that the rotational element gives you more bang for your buck). The more you know!
Stretching Form Tips: How To Stretch Safely
- Know your body and your limits. Some populations should avoid certain positions (for instance, skipping prone and deep twisting stretches later in pregnancy), says Tavel, so it’s crucial to know what’s healthy and safe for you. When in doubt, talk to your doc.
- Ease into each pose. With each static stretch hold, go a little further than the rep before, Yu recommends. For instance, if you’re repeating a stretch three times, she advises hitting a six out of 10 in terms of your range on the first go. On the second, aim for a seven; on the third, aim for an eight.
- Pay attention to your breath. When performing static stretches, taking slower breaths helps calm your nervous system. Inhale for a count of two to four and exhale for the same, Yu recommends. With each exhale, try to get a little deeper into the stretch. For dynamic stretches, speed up your tempo a bit and focus on controlled breathing (they are meant to get the heart rate up!).
- Match stretches to your workout. For example, focus on upper-body stretches if you’re doing an upper-body workout, Lampa advises.
Best Stretches By Muscle Group
Photo by Jean-Yves Lemoigne
The upper body is where many people store tension and stress. “Our world and most of the activities we are participating in during the day are in front of us,” Tavel says. Upper-body tightness, she notes, often results from those forward positions you sustain for long periods of time, like binging your fave show. Muscles that make up this region: pecs, biceps, triceps, latissimus dorsi (lats), and trapezius (traps).
Stretching and strengthening go hand-in-hand. For someone with poor posture and upper-back pain, Tavel recommends opening and stretching the front of the body while strengthening the upper back with your full range of motion to combat future problems.
Hanging out in a rounded, forward position can lead to tight muscles in this region, says Yu. The hip flexors—specifically, the iliopsoas muscles—are a key source of tightness, she adds.
Why the midsection matters: Tight muscles at the front of the pelvis (combined with other factors, like core weakness) can pull the pelvis forward into an anterior pelvic tilt, Yu explains. Being in that position all the time can put you at risk for low back pain.
Sitting for prolonged periods is the main reason for tight muscles in the lower body, says Lampa. Your quads feel the brunt of this sedentary position, and the “anterior pelvic tilt” applies here, too, she adds. When your quads are tight, it pulls on your pelvis. Again, that tilt can be a contributor to low back pain.
Biggest Stretching Mistakes To Avoid
- Sharp, fast, bouncing movements▸ This puts you at a higher risk for pulling a muscle, Yu notes.
- Speeding through a stretch▸ Holding a stretch for a few seconds may feel good, Yu says. Still, for a general fitness program, the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy recommends holding a static stretch for 15 to 30 seconds and repeating it two to four times. Optimal flexibility came after 40 seconds of static stretching, one study found.
- Stretching to the point of pain▸ A stretch can be uncomfortable, Tavel concedes, but you shouldn’t feel sharp, acute pain.
- Compensating with other body areas▸ If your flexibility is meh, you might be tempted to alter your form to go deeper in a stretch. For example, some people arch their backs during certain hip flexor stretches. Doing so compromises the goal of the stretch and puts extra pressure on the lower back, Yu explains.
Erin Warwood is a San Francisco-based writer, runner, and sparkling water enthusiast. She holds a B.B.A. from the University of Notre Dame and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University. In her free time, you can find her watching Survivor, trying new Peloton workouts, and reading Emily Giffin novels. Her ultimate goal: become a morning person.