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How to Stretch, When to Stretch and Stretching Properly

Answers to common stretching questions to make sure you’re stretching properly.

by Brad Walker | First Published August 27, 2010 | Updated August 2, 2018

Stretching properly is a little more technical than just swinging your leg over a park bench. There are methods and techniques that will maximize the benefits and minimize the risk of injury.

In this article we’ll look at some of the most common questions people ask about how to stretch properly. Questions like: Which muscles should I stretch? When should I stretch? Should I stretch every day? Plus a whole lot more.

If you would like more detailed information on this topic, grab a copy of the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility; it contains an entire chapter, which covers these topics in a lot more detail.

Which Muscles Should I Stretch?

As a general rule; if it’s not tight and it’s not causing you any problems, you don’t need to stretch it. There are a few exceptions to this (such as athletes that require increased flexibility for their chosen sport), but for most people this is a wise rule to follow.

So if you perform a stretch and you don’t feel any tension in the target muscle group, this would indicate that you’re not tight in that area.

As you start to notice which muscles are tight and which muscles aren’t, aim to create a balance of flexibility between the front of your body and the back of your body, and the left side of your body and the right side of your body. For example, if you notice that your right hamstring muscles are tighter than your left hamstrings muscles, work on the right hamstring muscles until you have even flexibility in both.

How to stretch properly

The Full-Body Stretching Routine Myth

This follows on from the previous point. The idea of the “full-body” stretching routine is one of the most damaging concepts in flexibility training today: This silly idea that you need to stretch everything. Take a look at the short video below where I explain why the full-body stretching routine is such a bad idea…

When to Stretch?

Most people understand the importance of stretching as part of a warm-up or cool-down, but when else should you stretch?

Stretch periodically throughout the entire day. It is a great way to stay loose and to help ease the stress of everyday life. One of the most productive ways to utilize time is to stretch while watching television. Start with five minutes of marching or jogging on the spot then take a seat on the floor in front of the television and start stretching.

Should I Stretch Every Day?

Firstly, we need to make a distinction between doing a few gentle stretches and doing a more intense flexibility training session. Doing a few gentle stretches every day is fine. In fact, I encourage all my clients to take regular “Stretch Breaks” throughout the day to keep loose and limber. However, a more intense flexibility training session is another thing altogether.

I like to approach flexibility training the same way as one approaches strength training. When an athlete does strength training, they typically focus on one or two movement patterns that compliment their sport. And this is the same approach I take with flexibility training. The client will focus on one or two movement patterns at a time, and work on the flexibility of the muscle groups involved in those movement patterns.

For example, an athlete involved in a kicking sport like Australian Rules football or soccer would focus on the muscle groups associated with kicking: The hamstrings, buttocks and lower back.

Variety of Stretches

Including a variety of stretching exercises in your training program is very important for avoiding muscle imbalances. While an athlete may go to the gym every day, no intelligent athlete would do the same set of exercises every day, day after day. The same approach applies to flexibility training; while it is okay to do flexibility training every day; it’s not a good idea to do the same stretches every day, day after day.

What Type of Stretching?

Choosing the right type of stretching for the right purpose will make a big difference to the effectiveness of any flexibility training program.

For warming up, dynamic stretching is the most effective, while for cooling down, static, passive and PNF stretching are best. For improving range of motion, try PNF and Active Isolated stretching, and for injury rehabilitation, a combination of PNF, Isometric and Active stretching will give the best results.

For an in-depth definition of the different types of stretching, the advantages and disadvantages of each type, plus a detailed explanation of how to perform each type, grab a copy of the Ultimate Guide to Stretching & Flexibility.

Hold, Count, Repeat and Breathe

For Static and Passive stretching, some text will say that holding a stretch for as little as 10 seconds is enough. This is a bare minimum. 10 seconds is only just enough time for the muscles to relax and start to lengthen. For any real improvement to flexibility, each stretch should be held for at least 30 to 60 seconds, and repeated at least two or three times.

Proper breathing is also essential for good flexibility. Not to mention good health. But most people have no idea that they’re breathing the wrong way. Here’s what I mean…

Go ahead and take a big, deep breath in: As deep as you can.

Now let me guess… Your shoulders have risen; your chest has expanded; and your waist has shrunk a little.

Am I right?

This is the way most people breathe, but what if I told you… You’re breathing the wrong way!

Breathing with your chest is the WRONG way to breath: It puts strain on your neck and shoulder muscles, causes shallow breathing and doesn’t allow for the full expansion of your lungs.

So how should you be breathing? Take a look at the video below for an explanation of the right way to breathe…

Order of Stretches

Limited data exists on what order individual stretches should be done in. However, some researchers have suggested designing flexibility training programs that start with the core muscles of the stomach, sides, back and neck, and then work out to the extremities.

Others have recommended starting with sitting stretches, because there is less chance of accidental injury while sitting, before moving on to standing stretches.

The exact order in which individual stretches are done is not the main point of emphasis; the main priority is to cover all the major muscle groups and their opposing muscles, and to work on those areas that are most tight or more important for your specific sport.

Stretching Posture and Alignment

how-to-stretch-posturePoor posture and incorrect alignment can cause imbalances in the muscles that can lead to injury. While proper posture and alignment will ensure that the targeted muscle group receives the best possible stretch.

In many instances one major muscle group can be made up of a number of different muscles. If posture is poor or incorrect certain stretching exercises may put more emphasis on one particular muscle within that muscle group, thus causing an imbalance that could lead to injury.

The picture on the right, for example, shows the difference between good posture and poor posture when stretching the hamstring muscles (the muscles at the back of the upper legs).

During this stretch it is important to keep both feet pointing straight up. Allowing the feet to fall to one side will put more emphasis on one particular part of the hamstrings, which could result in a muscle imbalance.

Note the athlete on the left; feet upright and back relatively straight. The athlete on the right is at a greater risk of developing a muscular imbalance that may lead to injury.

Click on the video below for more information on why stretching alignment is so important…

More Stretching Questions Answered

The Stretching Handbook, DVD & CD-ROMWhile the recommendations on this page are a good starting point, you'll get a lot more benefit when you include a wider variety of stretches.

To do away with stiff, tight muscles and joints, and become loose, limber and pain free, grab a copy of the Ultimate Stretching Video & Book Guide.

In no time you'll... Improve your freedom of movement and full-body mobility. Get rid of those annoying aches, pains and injuries. And take your flexibility (and ease of movement) to the next level.

You'll get 135 clear photographs and 44 video demonstrations of unique stretching exercises for all the major muscle groups in your body. Plus, the DVD includes 3 customized stretching routines (8 minutes each) for the Upper Body; the Lower Body; and the Neck, Back & Core. And the Handbook will show you, step-by-step, how to perform each stretch correctly and safely.

Get back to the activities you love. Whether it’s enjoying your favorite sport, or walking the dog, or playing with the grand kids. Imagine getting out of bed in the morning with a spring in your step. Or being able to work in the garden or play your favorite sport without “paying-for-it” the next day.

Click here for my Stretching Video & Book Guide!

Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 100's of testimonials. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.