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Stretching

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD

A balanced exercise routine includes activity, strength training, and stretching. Stretching not only feels good, but may help prevent muscle injuries.

Warming Up

It's important to warm up your body before any physical activity. Warming up for about 5–10 minutes goes a long way toward preparing the body for exercise.

Warming up:

  • increases your heart rate and respiratory rate
  • increases muscle temperature
  • boosts the amount of blood and oxygen delivered to your muscles
  • prepares the body for a workout

A warm-up can even be the activity you are about to do but at a slower pace. For example, if you're about to go for a run, warm up with walking or a light jog. If you're going to go for a swim, do a couple of slow warm-up laps. If you play a sport, focus on the muscles that are used for your particular sport. For instance, if you play baseball, you might warm up your shoulder with light throwing.

Dynamic stretching uses many muscle groups in a sport specific manner and can be part of your warm-up. Besides warming up the muscles that will be used in the activity, dynamic stretching allows for full range of motion of the joints.

Stretching the Right Way

Stretching used to be considered the main activity before a workout. But traditional, or "static," stretching may lead to decreased muscle strength and performance, especially if your muscles are not warmed up enough. Stretching cold muscles can lead to injury.

To get the most out of warming up and stretching, try dynamic stretches before and static stretching after a workout.

Stretching properly may reduce muscle injuries and improve athletic performance. It also increases:

  • flexibility
  • joint range and motion
  • blood flow to muscles

Here are some tips on how to stretch properly:

Stop if it hurts. Stretching should never hurt. If you have reached a point in your stretch where it hurts, pull back to where you still feel a stretch but can hold the stretch comfortably.

Hold each stretch for 10–30 seconds. Holding a stretch for any less won't sufficiently lengthen the muscle. Holding a stretch too long may overstretch muscles. Overstretching may cause injury and decrease performance. Stretch the muscles slowly and don't force it.

Don't bounce. Bouncing while stretching may injure the muscle you're stretching.

Remember to breathe. Don't hold your breath when you stretch. Inhale slowly and relax into the stretch as you breathe out.

Stretch both sides. You may be more flexible on one side, but try to do equal stretching on both sides. Big differences in flexibility may lead to injury.

Stretch regularly. To maintain flexibility, stretch at least 3 days a week.

Cooling Down

You need to slow down your body after a workout or exercise. Do 5–10 minutes of gentle movement and stretching to help your body recover from a workout.

Your cool-down routine should include gentle movement and stretching. Cooling down and stretching at the end of a workout helps you to:

  • slow your heart rate and breathing
  • reduce the chance of feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • relax and feel the benefits of your workout

Whether you're new to working out or a lifelong athlete, be sure to include a good before-and-after routine for better performance and recovery.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2018