How You Stretch Matters—Avoid These 7 Common Mistakes to Stay Limber and Injury-Free
These sneaky stretching mistakes and myths can cause more harm than good.
Love it or hate it, stretching is a vital part of having a healthy, fit body, and it’s crucial if you want to stay active your whole life. “If you want to enjoy fitness for your entire life, then stretching is the key,” says Matthew Morris, a certified personal trainer and master fitness programmer at Burn Boot Camp in Cornelius, N.C.
Stretching not only increases your flexibility and range of motion, but it will also improve your performance in workouts and all physical activity. By stretching, you increase blood flow to your muscles and even help relieve stress and calm your mind, and it’s one of the best ways to ward off injury. “Regular stretching is one of the most important keys to preventing injuries during normal everyday activities as well as health and fitness programs,” says Michael Pappas, PT, the CEO and cofounder of Pappas Physical and Hand Therapy in Providence, R.I.
But as with any sort of fitness move or activity, proper form matters. Even if you have the best intentions, when done incorrectly, stretching can have the opposite effect: either hampering your performance goals or putting you at greater risk of injury. Experts break down seven of the most common mistakes people make when trying to get loose—and the right way to stretch instead.
Many people believe you need to do static stretches before working out, but doing this could work against you. “Substantial research suggests that static stretching prior to exercise or activity decreases performance, both muscle strength and endurance,” Pappas says. This may be because static stretching before a workout increases overall muscle fatigue, which leads to diminished performance and could boost injury risk. Instead, save those static stretches for after an activity.
Know your limits. Not only is pain a sign that you’ve pushed your body too far, even to the point of injury, it could also minimize all those other positive benefits of stretching. “Because it’s painful or uncomfortable, it could deter you from stretching,” Pappas says, which shouldn't be the case at all. Instead, while you might feel slight discomfort as you stretch and release tension, it should never be painful. If it ever does start to hurt, ease up on that stretch immediately (it's not a competition!).
This is a really common error people make. Holding a stretch for the appropriate amount of time can often feel like a lifetime, but if you want the full benefits of any particular stretch, you can’t shortchange the pose. “Holding each stretch long enough allows your brain to send a signal to your muscle to relax and elongate,” Morris says. The sweet spot is typically 20 to 30 seconds (longer if one area is super tight).
You might be so focused on stretching that you hold your breath. The problem? “This can decrease the amount of oxygenated blood traveling to your muscles, which can decrease your ability to stretch,” Pappas says. It can also decrease the amount of lactic acid in your blood, making it more likely that you feel pain during the stretch. To correct this, take long, slow breaths through your nose, if possible, which has the added benefit of lowering stress. You may find you can sink deeper into your stretch with each cycle of inhaling and exhaling.
It’s a no brainer that you have to use proper technique if you want to get the most from your stretches. Good technique is also crucial for helping you avoid injury. Two stretches that people often get wrong, Morris says, are forward fold and standing quadricep stretch. With the forward fold stretch, you’re meant to fold from the hips and let your body hang toward the ground, stretching your hamstrings and back. But many people have a tendency to look up versus down; instead, let your head and neck relax completely and heavily. In the standing quad stretch, many people move their knee too far away from the midline of the body; instead, keep that flexed knee in line with your hip and stand your trunk up straight.
Basketballs are meant to be bounced—not stretches. “Bouncing [while stretching] will signal your brain to tighten your muscle, which could lead to a pulled muscle,” Morris says. Instead, avoid the urge to bounce and simply hold the stretch for the designated time, remembering to breathe deeply and continually the whole time.
“Although some types of stretching after an injury can be beneficial, stretching the injured tissue can delay and prolong the healing response,” Pappas says. Instead, stretch muscles adjacent to the inured body part so they don’t get stiff as you rest the injured area. Work with a healthcare professional like a physical therapist to make sure you’re doing it right to promote healing and avoid further damage.