Ask five trainers at your gym, and you can bank on five different answers about how and when to stretch. That’s because there’s a ridiculous amount of conflicting science on proper stretching techniques — and most people were taught to do it incorrectly back when gym class was your workout.
To clear things up, avoid these common mistakes, deemed so by two researchers who recently reviewed about 20 years worth of stretching research and published the results in the academic journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.
1. You don’t stretch ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Non-stretchers get tight muscles, causing pain, bad posture, and even less flexibility than you started with. It only gets worse as you age, according to David Behm, Ph.D., a research professor at the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s School of Human Kinetics and Recreation in Canada.
2. You only stretch after you work out.
Experts agree that stretching increases your range of motion so your muscles are less stiff and prone to injury when you exercise. Dated studies that claim otherwise are now considered B.S. — any negative effects of stretching, like the minuscule impact on performance for pro athletes, are inconsequential for the average person, according to Behm.
3. You hold your stretches F-O-R-E-V-E-R.
Three sets of 20-second holds in each muscle group will increase your flexibility in a good way. Spend more than 60 seconds on one area, and you’ll move slower in sports and lift less at the gym, according to Behm. After you master the stretch and hold thing, progress to dynamic stretches like leg swings and arm circles. Then start your actual activity, gradually increasing your intensity as opposed to hitting the gas full-throttle.
4. You stretch the second you wake up.
In the morning, your muscles are at their all-time stiffest because you’ve been inactive for hours and your body temperature drops when you sleep. Stretching princess-style when you wake up = Bad Idea.
5. You stretch without warming up.
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Cold muscles are stiff AF, so stretching them before they’re warm can set you up for sprains and strains. The right time to stretch is right after you warm up. All you need to do is move enough to almost break a sweat (try jumping jacks FTW). Then you’re ready to go. If you only have time for only a warmup or a stretch, always choose the warmup, which will do a better job at protecting you from injury, Behm warns.
6. You neglect your hip flexors.
Tight hip muscles cause your pelvis to tilt forward, which makes your stomach and butt stick out (Not. Flattering.) and strains the lower back, which has to compensate to keep you upright. And because merely sitting shortens and tightens these bad boys, NO ONE IS SAFE. Practice these moves for some sweet relief.
7. You stretch your arms or legs, and call it a day.
You should be stretching all the major muscle groups below — Both sides! — to promote balance and overall well-being, Behm says. At the very least, perform a stretch (like the ones suggested below) for each of the areas listed below and hold for at least 20 seconds.
- Shoulders: Extend one arm straight up overhead, bend the elbow and let the hand drop behind the head. Use your other hand to pull the elbow behind the head.
- Lower Back: Sit on the ground with both legs outstretched in front of you with your hands under softly bent knees. Use your hands to pull your upper body toward your legs.
- Quads: With one leg, take a large step forward. Keeping the back leg long and front knee behind the front foot, bend the front knee and lower into a lunge. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Groin: Take a wide stance with both feet facing forward. Bend one knee to feel the stretch in the opposite leg. Repeat on the opposite side.
- Hamstrings: Sit on the ground with your legs apart and one knee bent with its heel against the opposite leg’s inner thigh. Keeping your extended knee locked down, reach toward your extended foot. Repeat on opposite side.
- Calves: Stand in front of a wall with one leg staggered in front of the other. Place both palms on the wall and lean forward as you bend the back knee. Repeat on the opposite side.
8. You don’t have a designated stretch day.
“Stretching before or after you work out isn’t the best time to improve your range of motion,” Behm says. If you want to actually touch your toes or just ward off stupid injuries that haunt inflexible people, schedule a separate stretching session. Your weekly yoga class counts, as does the 20-minute stretch you do in front of the TV. (Just make sure you warm up first).
9. You stretch until it hurts like a bitch.
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A photo posted by # G Y M W O N D E R L A N D ❄️ (@gymnast.gretaa) on
“You don’t have to put yourself into great pain for a greater range of motion,” Behm says. Instead, only push yourself to a tolerable point of discomfort — a seven on a scale of zero to 10 (worst pain you’ve ever felt). “You want to feel tension in the muscles, but no actual pain,” he says.
10. You foam-roll instead of stretch.
While foam-rolling before a workout might make you feel good, it probably won’t improve your flexibility, according to Malachy McHugh, Ph.D., director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. If you want to treat your muscles right, foam-roll and stretch. The combo will really increase your range of motion and make you feel phenom.
11. You stretch between sets.
Even if you really feel the burn after those 10 bicep curls, resist the urge to stretch it out the second you drop the weights. “Stretching in between sets can impair performance,” Behm explains.
After your initial stretch at the beginning of your workout, lay off stretching until your workout is done. Turns out, when you stretch one part of your body (like your arms), you activate a central nervous system reflex that affects muscles you haven’t even moved — and impairs their performance too. So you could have a lower tolerance for squats after stretching your arms. (Weird, right?)
12. After exercising, you stretch like you’re a freaking acrobat.
Post-workout, your muscles are plenty warm, which might make you feel extra flexible. But they’re also extra tired, which means they’re easier to injure, Behm says.
13. You stretch through a muscle strain.
While stretching can be a godsend for tight muscles — particularly the day after a workout — you don’t want to mess any joint or limb that looks swollen or hurts beyond your typical next-day soreness. Instead, lay off it and see a doctor. Stretching through the pain can delay healing when you’re already looking at a few days to a few weeks of recovery time, according to Behm.
14. You stretch on your bed or on hard floor.
You don’t need an expert to tell you the bed is probably too soft and the floor is uncomfortable. On a mat or thick carpet, you’ll be stable and comfortable enough to perform stretches with proper form, according to McHugh.
15. You bounce when you stretch.
“Rhythmic stretches are less effective and may involve a greater risk of injury if performed with incorrect form,” McHugh says.
The right way: Strike a pose, and hold it for no longer than 60 seconds.
16. You stretch but don’t strength-train.
A photo posted by Krystal Greven (@krystalyoga) on
Even if you’re really bendy, stretching alone isn’t enough. You “might be better served performing strengthening exercises to ensure [you] have sufficient stretch to stabilise [your] very mobile joints,” McHugh says. So, split masters: Try this move to strengthen your inner and outer thighs:
17. You stretch ~elaborately~ before jogging.
Seeing a jogger stretch like she’s a ballerina isn’t just one of McHugh’s pet peeves — it can be a big waste of time, mostly because recreational runners don’t need an impressive range of motion to do a few laps — so greater flexibility won’t improve your performance. In other words: The only reason to stretch before you jog is to procrastinate.
This post originally appeared on cosmopolitan.com