You might already know that it's important to tackle a warmup routine before a cardio workout. But did you know that you should warm up before stretching too? Doing so ensures that you'll get the greatest return from your investment of time and effort.
Why Bother With Stretching?
The physical activity guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services focus on cardiovascular exercise and strength training, with good reason — these two components of physical fitness are critically important to your life span and quality of life. But there's a third component of fitness, flexibility, that often goes overlooked.
The American Council on Exercise offers a list of the reasons you should stretch. They include lower risk of injury during your other workouts, better muscular function, decreased stress, better range of motion, less pain, improved circulation, less wear and tear on your joints, and overall better quality of life.
If you've ever struggled to get down far enough to tie your shoelaces (or get your foot up far enough for the same), you already know how much simple, functional freedom of movement can affect your life. Having great flexibility also makes it easier to maintain proper posture and makes everyday movements, such as stepping over things and reaching across the kitchen counter or up to a high shelf, much easier.
Warmup Exercises for Stretching
The very simplest way to warm up before stretching is to put your flexibility training at the end of your normal workout. That way, your muscles are already warm and ready to go without any additional bother.
But if you prefer to do your stretching separately from your other workouts, you should take the time to warm up before you stretch. This literal warmup process — increasing your circulation and blood flow, and elevating the temperature of your muscle tissue — decreases your risk of injury and increases the benefit of the time you spend stretching.
The Mayo Clinic recommends filling your prestretch warmup with five to 10 minutes of light activity. Whatever activity you choose should involve the muscles you're going to stretch; so if you're planning to stretch your lower body, your warmup could be as simple as taking a brisk walk or pedaling a bike.
If you're going to stretch your upper body, choose something with an upper body component. Examples including pumping your arms as you walk, light shadowboxing, calisthenics with an upper-body component (such as jumping jacks and burpees) or using the moving handlebars on an elliptical trainer. You can also lift very light weights, as long as you keep your body moving and use weights light enough that they're not a challenge for your body at all.
What Type of Stretching?
The two most common types of stretching you'll encounter are static stretches — like reaching down to touch your toes, then holding that position — and dynamic stretches, such as arm circles and leg swings.
Experts sometimes disagree about which type of stretching is best for which uses, but the American Council on Exercise sums up the general consensus: Use dynamic stretches as part of a warmup before workouts, and do static stretches after your workout — or at least after a warmup — to improve your overall flexibility and range of motion.
If you're doing static stretches for flexibility, follow the guidelines issued by numerous expert organizations, including the American Heart Association and the Mayo Clinic: Stretch to the point of mild tension (not pain) in the affected muscles, and then hold that position for 10 to 30 seconds, breathing normally. Don't bounce, but do repeat the stretch three to five times in a given session. And if any of your stretches are unilateral (just one side at a time), make sure you take the time to stretch both sides.
Last but not least, just as you should work all your major muscle groups during the strength-training portion of your fitness routine, you should also stretch all your major muscle groups, at least during your first few flexibility workouts. That'll give you a chance to see which muscles are tight enough to need your extra time and attention.
Simple Stretching Exercises
Stretching your major muscle groups doesn't have to mean turning yourself into a contortionist. Once your warm up routine is done, try doing these simple stretches to see which muscles feel tight:
Move 1: Chest Doorway Stretch
- Stand in an open doorway and place both forearms against the doorjamb.
- Lean forward gently until you feel a stretch in your chest.
Move 2: Back Stretch
- Stand facing a kitchen counter, table or other sturdy surface at roughly hip level.
- Place both hands on the counter or table, and walk your hips back from it until your back is flat and level. You should feel a stretch up and down the sides of your back.
- Lean back into your hips and, if necessary, turn your hands thumbs-up or palms-up to increase the stretch in your back.
Move 3: Standing Quad Stretch
- Stand next to a wall, chair or other sturdy object you can use for balance if need be.
- Bend your right leg and grasp your foot on that side with your right hand.
- Keep your right knee pointing down, and close to your left leg. You should feel a stretch down your right thigh.
- Repeat on the other side.
Move 4: Standing Hip Flexor Stretch
- Assume a split stance (right leg forward, left leg back).
- Bend your back (left) leg slightly and drop your weight a bit, as you tuck your pelvis forward beneath you. This should produce a stretch in your left hip.
- If you need to increase the stretch, move your right leg forward a few inches and try again.
- Repeat on the other side.
Move 5: Standing Calf Stretch
Stand facing a wall in a split stance —
right foot forward, left foot back.
Bend your front (right) leg, allowing you to drop your weight, as you keep your left heel on the floor. Use your hands on the wall for support as needed.
If you don't feel a stretch in your left calf, move your left leg a few inches farther back and try again.
Repeat on the other side.
Move 6: Seated Hamstring Stretch
- Sit down on a carpeted floor, a yoga mat or even the bed.
- Extend your right leg straight out in front of you. Bend your left leg and tuck that foot against the inside of your right leg.
- Lean forward over your right leg until you feel tension in your hamstrings, then hold that stretch. Make sure you keep a straight back and hinge forward from the hips; don't slouch forward.
- Repeat on the other side.
Move 7: Lower Back Stretch
- Lie down on your back, knees bent and feet planted.
- Gently pull your right knee up toward your chest and hold at the point of tension.
- Return your right leg to the starting position, then bring your left knee up toward your chest.
- Bring both knees up toward your chest at once and hug them against you. (If your lower back is flexible, you can go straight to this.)
Move 8: Glute Stretch
As long as you're lying down, this stretch will help target your glutes and deep hip rotators.
- Lie on your back, knees bent and feet planted.
- Cross your right foot over your left knee. Your right knee should point out to the side.
- Gently draw your left leg toward your chest, bringing your right leg along with it.
- Hold the stretch at the point of tension, and then repeat on the other side.
- American Council on Exercise: "10 Reasons Why You Should Be Stretching"
- Mayo Clinic: "A Guide to Basic Stretches"
- American Heart Association: "Flexibility Exercise (Stretching)"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- American Council on Exercise: "Flexibility Exercises for Beginners"
- American Council on Exercise: "To Stretch or Not to Stretch?"
- American Council on Exercise: "90 Lat Stretch"