Stretching out your legs makes it easier to get in different positions when you work out and prevents injuries. Address the muscles down the front, back and both sides of your legs, as well as your calf muscles. Each muscle group needs a different type of stretch, so you'll assume a number of different positions.
Leg Muscle Anatomy
Understanding the muscles of the legs helps you understand where you feel most tight and which moves offer the best stretch.
The quadriceps go down the front of your thigh and extend your knee. The quadriceps muscle group includes four different muscles. Three of these muscles start at the top of your femur — the leg bone — and run down to your knee.
The fourth muscle starts on your hip bone and goes down into the knee. That means you also have to stretch the front of your hip to hit all of the muscles of the quadriceps.
The hamstring group also has four muscles that run down the back of your leg. Two extend down the inside part of your leg and two run down the outside. You stretch these muscles by straightening out your knee and bending your torso forward, since they are attached both to your hips and knees.
Your inner thigh muscles are called your adductors because they pull your leg in toward the middle of your body. Some of them are small and don't go down the entire length of your leg and others are large and almost as strong as bigger leg muscles such as the hamstrings.
Since these muscles bring your leg in towards the middle of your body, you have to reach your leg away from your body to stretch them.
Your abductors sit opposite of your adductors on the outside of your hip. In the leg, the tensor fascia latae or TFL is the biggest abductor muscle. Located right under the hip on the outside of your leg, this muscle connects to the large band of connective tissue known as the iliotibial band, which runs down most of your leg.
Because the IT band is made up of thick connective tissue, you can't stretch it directly. However, if you stretch the TFL, you release tension on the IT band.
The gastrocnemius and soleus are the two big calf muscles. These muscles run from the back of your knee down into the thick Achilles tendon, which connects to your heel. They help your flex your foot down. To stretch these muscles you'll have to pull your foot up, bringing your toes towards your shin.
The Best Leg Stretches
No one stretch addresses all the muscles of your leg. Perform several different exercises to loosen up your gams.
1. Toe Touch
This stretch is commonly used to test someone's general flexibility. If you can't touch your toes then consider adding more stretching to your routine.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand tall with your feet two inches from each other. Keep your knees completely straight and reach down toward your toes with both arms. Stick your butt back as you go down. Go down as far as you can and hang there, hold the stretch for 30 seconds.
2. Standing Foot Grab
This stretch focuses on the muscles in the front of your thigh, the quadriceps.
HOW TO DO IT: Find a wall or something stable to hold onto. Put your hand on it to brace yourself and pick up the opposite leg with your free hand. Hold onto the front of your shin and pull your leg back, bending at the knee. Try to touch your heel to your butt. If that's easy, drive your knee back behind your body.
3. Kneeling Adductor Stretch
This is one of the best stretches for the adductor muscles because it gives you a wide range of control over the intensity of the stretch.
HOW TO DO IT: Start in an all-fours position with your hands under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Reach your right leg out straight to the side with your knee locked out. Plant your foot flat on the ground with your toes pointed forward.
Rock your butt back towards the other foot and reach your arms forward. To increase the stretch, reach your right hand towards your right foot. Stretch for 30 seconds on each leg.
4. Wall Hamstring Stretch
Work on each hamstring individually with this stretch.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie down on your back next to a doorway or the corner of a wall. You need enough space to be able to prop one leg up on the wall while the other leg is flat on the floor. Scoot up so your knees are in line with the doorway or corner.
Raise the leg closest to the wall up and plant your heel on the wall with your knee straight. The other leg remains flat on the floor. To increase the stretch, move yourself closer to the wall.
5. Bench Hip Flexor Stretch
This stretch focuses on both your hip flexors and quads. You should feel it from your hips all the way down to your knee.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand in front of a bench or chair that has a flat surface. It should be around knee-height. Face away from it. Reach one leg back and put the top of that foot flat on the top of the bench or chair.
Drop your back knee down to the ground and keep the other foot planted in front of you. Keep your torso tall and lean back towards your back leg to increase the stretch. If you still don't feel a stretch, raise your arms overhead and lean back.
6. IT Band Stretch
Many athletes, particularly runners, have tight IT bands. Use this technique to lengthen the muscles that pull on the IT band and relieve some pressure.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand tall with your feet close together, like you're going to do a toe touch. Then, cross your right leg in front of your left. Reach your arms down to touch your toes and fold your upper body forward. Reach toward the toes of the rear foot. Go as low as you can then stand back up. Hold for 30 seconds on each side.
7. Lateral Lunge
This dynamic stretch is for your adductors and hamstrings.
HOW TO DO IT: Start standing, then step out to the right with your right leg. Keep both feet pointed forward and lean to your right, straightening out your left leg and sticking your butt back. You should feel a stretch down the inside of your left leg.
Then, come back up and lean to the left, straightening out your right leg. Step your left foot up to your right and step to the right again, repeating the stretch. Do five steps to the right and five to the left.
8. Half-Kneeling Calf Stretch
Both the calf muscle and Achilles tendon are commonly injured, so it's important to take some tension out of your calf by stretching.
HOW TO DO IT: Kneel on a pad on one knee. Plant the other foot in front of you so that your front knee is bent at 90 degrees. Your back knee should also be bent at 90 degrees. Put your weight on your front foot and lean forward, trying to drive your knee over your toes.
Keep your front heel on the ground. Come back to the start position, then lean forward again, trying to push slightly farther. Repeat 10 times on each leg.