How to Stretch: A Quick-Start Guide

Stretch in a yoga class

Are you stretching properly? In order to realize all of the amazing benefits of stretching, you need to ensure you’re stretching properly.

Some common mistakes are:

  • Not warming up properly
  • Not enough rest between workouts
  • Overstretching
  • Wrong exercises
  • Wrong order

If you’re unsure if you are stretching properly, follow this guide and you’ll be well on your way! For more information on the benefits of stretching, read my post about it here.

When to stretch

You should stretch at least 3 times a week to maintain your flexibility. It’s best to stretch while you’re muscles are warm, so it is often recommended to do this after an exercise. Later, we will look at a full routine if you want to include stretching into your fitness regime.

If you consistently work on your flexibility 3-5 days a week, you may see improvement in your range of motion

Some resources indicate stretching in the afternoon/early evening is best since you’ll be more flexible, while other sources indicate stretching first thing in the morning is more beneficial. Due to this conflicting information, the best time to stretch is simply when it works best for you. Try it both ways and determine the best time based on your schedule and how you feel.

Schedule the session in your day where you can, and you’ll be good to go. You know your body best, and if you’re a morning person or a night owl, use that to your advantage while keeping your work and life schedule in mind. Personally, I tend to stretch after my workouts which can fall around 9 or 10 am or be as late as 6 or 7 pm. Try it out either way and go with what feels right for you.


Steps:

1. Warm Up

Warming up is the most important part of stretching. You risk injury if you stretch “cold”, which becomes counter-productive. Cold stretching can cause micro-tears in the tissues. Over time these micro-tears are replaced by dense scar tissue, which inhibits flexibility.

Your goal with warming up is to raise your core body temperature by a couple of degrees. The most effective way of warming up for a stretch session is aerobic activity, which is also extremely beneficial for your heart health. This type of activity includes things such as running, jumping, cycling, etc. Joint rotations should also be included with your warm up to help lubricate the joints. This is necessary to ready the joint for the stretch. For example, if you’re stretching your hips, you should do leg rotations in both directions; if you’re stretching your shoulders, do arm circles in both directions.

Running is one way to increase your body temperature and warm up your muscles before stretching

Once you’ve warmed up your muscles and joints, you can begin your warm-up stretching. It’s best to start with gentle static stretching, followed by dynamic stretches. If you’ve ever wondered what order you should stretch your whole body in, this is it:

  1. back
  2. sides (external obliques)
  3. neck
  4. forearms and wrists
  5. triceps
  6. chest
  7. buttocks
  8. groin (adductors)
  9. thighs (quadriceps and abductors)
  10. calves
  11. shins
  12. hamstrings
  13. instep

Start with gentle static stretching for each of these areas, then work on dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves moving your body part and gradually increasing range, speed, and movement. This could include leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists.

2. Workout or Sport Activity

Once this is complete, you can begin your workout. If you’re a body-builder you would begin your lifting sets; if you’re a dancer you would begin dancing; if you’re an aerialist (like me!) you would perform your aerial acrobatics; so on and so forth.

3. Cool down

After your activity, you need to do a cool-down process. After your workout you would reverse the order of the stretching portion of your warm up. So to start to cool down you would start with dynamic stretching, followed by some static stretching. Then you’re all set!

So the full order of operations is this:

  1. Warm up
    • Aerobic activity
    • Joint rotations
    • Static stretching
    • Dynamic stretching
  2. Sport or activity
  3. Cool down
    • dynamic stretching
    • static stretching

Pro tips:

Pain-free is the way to be!

Some amount of soreness or discomfort is normal, but pain is not. Your goal is to experience the stretch sensation, and to not bully your body past that point. If you start to feel pain, back off the stretch. If you have severe pain in the joints, ligaments, or tendons, or if you hear or feel any popping or tearing, discontinue the activity and consult with a physician or a Physical Therapist first. If any of this occurs, care for the injury by using RICE protocol until you can see a qualified medical professional.

  • R=Rest
  • I=Ice
  • C=Compression
  • E=Elevation

Don’t bounce

Bouncing (ballistic stretching) or trying to force the muscle into a larger range of motion than it’s currently capable of can lead to micro-tears in the tissue. As mentioned earlier, micro-tears can cause injury, lead to scar tissue formation, and thus hinder your range of motion and performance. Be gentle and don’t bully your body into a stretch.

A good stretch includes:

  • Isolating one muscle group at a time
  • Using leverage to apply as little force to the outstretched muscle as possible
  • Assessment of risk to avoid injury

Timing (duration, counting, repetition)

There is a lot of conflicting research on how long a stretch should be held. Most often, it is recommended to hold a static stretch for around 30 seconds. Take a 15 second break, and do 2-5 repetitions per side. Make sure to stretch both sides equally for balance. To maintain flexibility, do this 3 times a week, or 5 times a week to increase flexibility.

Breathing

Controlled breathing is an important element of stretching. This helps to support relaxation and ensure proper oxygenation to the muscles. When you go for a stretch first inhale, and stretch while you’re exhaling. If you’re holding the stretch and you want to go deeper, do so on your exhale. Focus on controlling your breath by taking slow, deep, diaphragmatic breaths in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth.


There you have it! If you follow this guide, you can ensure that you’ll be stretching properly. The most important elements are warming up prior to stretching, don’t bounce, only go to your pain-free range, and control your breathing. If you are looking for a better stretch than you can get on your own, book a Thai Massage session with Unwind Bodywork here. If you would like to increase your flexibility, SDAA offers flexibility classes.

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