A deep stretch session can feel so good. But it may not be as effective as it should be if you're unsure how long you should hold a stretch or how far to push into a stretch.
If you're ready to elevate your stretching game and loosen up, experts Theresa Marko, DPT, owner of Marko Physical Therapy, and Kasia Gondek, DPT, CSCS, physical therapist at Fusion Wellness and Physical Therapy, explain just how long to hold a stretch — and when to let up.
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How Long Should You Hold a Stretch?
You might be surprised to learn that the answer isn't straightforward. There's a lot to consider when it comes to timing your stretches, including your goals and the type of stretching you're doing.
There are several different types of stretches, though some overlap or can be used together. These include:
- Static Stretching: holding your body in the same position for a set time to elongate the muscle
- Dynamic Stretching: moving the muscle and tissues through a full range of motion
- Passive Stretching: a type of static stretching that requires an outside force (usually another person) to facilitate
- Isometric Stretching: a type of static stretching where you also contract the stretched muscle
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): combines isometric and passive stretching (often used in injury rehabilitation)
We'll focus on static stretching and dynamic stretching here, because they're the two most common types of stretching people do on their own.
How Long to Hold a Static Stretch
In general, experts tend to agree that static stretches provide the most benefit when held for around 15 to 30 seconds. Marko says she typically instructs her clients to start with a hold of 20 to 30 seconds and increase up to 60 seconds if it feels doable.
Gondek adds that older adults often require longer stretch holds in the 45- to 60-second range. This is because you lose muscle elasticity as a normal part of aging. Thus, maintaining flexibility gets harder with age, according to a June 2013 study in the Journal of Aging Research.
Should You Do More Than One Set of Stretches?
For those wondering how many sets of stretches to do, there’s no blanket recommendation. It's less about how many sets you do and more about the total time spent stretching, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). It doesn’t really matter how many sets it takes you to get to 60 seconds of stretching per muscle group, as long as you get there, the ACSM says.
You could, for example, perform three 20-second sets or two 30-second sets. If you’re feeling particularly bendy, you could go for a single 60-second set. And if you feel especially tight one day, you can try four 15-second sets.
Should You Static Stretch Without Warming Up?
If you feel like you can't just drop into a forward fold without warming up, you're not alone. Attempting a deep static stretch without any preparation can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst (over-stretching tight muscles can lead to strains).
Marko says some muscles can tolerate static stretching without a warm-up. For example, she points out that most people can stretch their shoulders by crossing one arm in front of their chest and holding it there. But other muscles may require some warming up first.
"Certain muscles, like the hamstrings, tend to be tighter and don't appreciate an aggressive static stretch immediately," Marko says. "Because of that, I often recommend people do some dynamic flossing first before holding a static hamstring stretch." Dynamic flossing, also called nerve flossing, is a type of active stretch that gently loosens up irritated nerves.
How to dynamically floss your hamstrings before static stretching:
- Lie down on your back.
- Place a towel, resistance band or belt under your foot.
- Hold the ends of the item and bring your knee to your chest.
- Straighten your knee as tolerated a few times.
How Long to Hold a Dynamic Stretch
Dynamic stretching involves repeatedly moving muscles and their associated joint(s) in the same way. It helps improves mobility, or the ability of a joint to move through the available range of motion without pain.
Examples include leg swings, knees-to-chest and spinal rotations. You don't hold dynamic stretches for extended periods of time like you do static stretches. Instead, dynamic stretching is more about moving through a certain number of reps.
Gondek recommends aiming for 10 to 12 reps per muscle group and focusing on hitting the end range of motion. "Active dynamic stretching produces a brief stretch sensation as you slowly move in and out of your full available range of motion," she says.
What Type of Stretching Is Right for You?
Both dynamic and static stretches have their place. What type of stretch you should do depends on when and why you're doing it.
Static stretching is best after exercise or in its own flexibility-focused session, Gondek says. While the verdict is still out about whether static stretching before exercise decreases performance, some research suggests it does. An October 2018 report in Muscle, Ligaments and Tendons Journal found that static stretching may limit strength, maximum force, running velocity, balance or sprint performance in athletes.
Gondek says this occurs because our muscles have an optimal length at which they can generate the greatest amount of force. In general, this occurs at about the mid-range of motion of the muscle. When you do a static stretch, the muscle gets lengthened temporarily. This means the muscle has a slightly decreased ability to generate force, as it takes slightly more time to achieve the optimal mid-range of motion to generate the greatest amount of force.
On the other hand, Dr. Marko says dynamic stretching is a good choice if:
- You've been sitting in one position for a long time (hello, fellow desk workers).
- You haven't stretched in a long time and are looking to get back into it.
- It's early in the morning and your body hasn't been warmed up with an activity yet.
- You try to do a static stretch and it doesn't feel good.
Dynamic stretching is also preferable as a warm-up before working out or participating in sports or other physical activities, because "they tend to be more functional and mimic patterns you're about to perform," Gondek says. It also helps wake up the brain-body connection so your muscles can perform optimally, she adds.
In short, perform static stretches as part of your cooldown or when you want to do a quick stretch session to work on flexibility, and perform dynamic stretches as preparation for movement or to warm up for static stretching.
Should Stretching Hurt?
Stretching might feel a little uncomfortable, but it should be in a "hurts so good" way. It shouldn't ever hurt, though. A sharp or sudden pain, unbearable pulling sensation or feeling like something is going to tear are all signs your body is telling you to stop.
“It is possible to overstretch a muscle and strain it, which means you have torn it,” Marko says. Muscle strains take time to recover from, you want to avoid them.
To stretch safely, ease into it slowly, Gondek says. "Stretching should feel mild and gentle. If it feels like something is about to snap or give way, then you are pushing it too far and you should definitely back off.”
If a static stretch feels too intense on a specific area, Marko suggests gentle dynamic stretches instead. Don’t push your range of motion too far — just go until you feel mild pressure in the muscle. Often, this practice will prime a muscle for a deeper static stretch.
Benefits of Stretching
Stretching has many proclaimed benefits, some with more evidence behind them than others. First and foremost, a regular stretching regimen can help you improve your overall flexibility. Just like your muscles get stronger in response to strength training, they become flexible in response to repeated stretching.
Dynamic Stretching Benefits
Dynamic stretching can increase both flexibility and joint range of motion, according to a February 2019 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. Findings from a February 2018 study in Sports Medicine indicate that dynamic stretching may also boost performance during exercise.
When it's incorporated into a warm-up routine prior to a sport or workout, dynamic stretching can help decrease muscle stiffness and increase your range of motion as you work out. This allows you to move muscles more fully, which translates to bigger strength and muscle gains.
Static Stretching Benefits
Static stretching is generally thought to improve passive flexibility but not exercise performance. For example, a 2020 study in the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions found that static stretching increased flexibility but decreased jumping performance.
General Stretching Benefits
Whether stretching — dynamically or statically — actually prevent injuries is unclear. It's a commonly cited benefit of stretching, but a November 2014 review in Orthopedic Nursing explains that a conclusive link between stretching and reduced risk of injury has yet to be established.
Finally, after a surgery or injury, focused stretching can help you regain lost mobility in a joint. If you're fresh off an injury, it's best to work with your physical therapist or personal trainer to come up with a stretching program that's right for you. Chances are your routine will mix static and dynamic stretching, depending on the area impacted and what type of rehab work you need to function optimally again.
- Orthopedic Nursing: “A Systematic Literature Review of the Relationship Between Stretching and Athletic Injury Prevention”
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: “The Effects of Self‐Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager On Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic review”
- Journal of Aging Research: “Flexibility of Older Adults Aged 55–86 Years and the Influence of Physical Activity”
- American College of Sports Medicine: “American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exercise.”
- Muscle, Ligaments and Tendons Journal: “Flexibility responses to different stretching methods in young elite basketball players”
- Journal of Sports Science and Medicine: “Dynamic Stretching Has Sustained Effects on Range of Motion and Passive Stiffness of the Hamstring Muscles”
- Sports Medicine: “Acute Effects of Dynamic Stretching on Muscle Flexibility and Performance: An Analysis of the Current Literature.”
- Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neuronal Interactions: “Acute effects of static stretching and massage on flexibility and jumping performance”