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What is stretching? How to stretch properly? When to stretch?

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

by Brad Walker | First Published August 27, 2010 | Updated February 28, 2019

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: What is flexibility and what is stretching? Which muscles should I stretch? When should I stretch? Should I stretch every day? Plus a whole lot more.

Stretching definitions and how to stretch

What is Flexibility?

Flexibility is commonly described as the range of motion, or movement, around a particular joint or set of joints. Or in layman’s terms, how far we can reach, bend or turn. When improving flexibility is the goal, the muscles and their fascia (sheath) should be the major focus of flexibility training. While bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and skin do contribute to overall flexibility, we have limited control over these factors.

Two Types of Flexibility

Within the broader definition of flexibility there exists two distinct types of flexibility: Static and Dynamic.

  1. The term static flexibility refers to an individual’s absolute range of motion that can be achieved without movement. In other words, how far we can reach, bend or turn and then hold that position.
  2. The term dynamic flexibility refers to an individual’s absolute range of motion that can be achieved with movement. In other words, how far we can reach, bend or turn by using velocity to achieve maximum range of motion.

Static flexibility is sometimes referred to as passive flexibility, and dynamic flexibility is sometimes referred to as ballistic or functional flexibility.

Range of Motion (ROM)

Range of motion (ROM), or range of movement, is so intimately related to flexibility that the terms are often considered having the same meaning. That is, they all describe the extent to which a joint can go in its established spectrum of movements.

A joint’s normal range of motion is determined by what that joint does and how far the bones that comprise it can move. So, range of motion also measures the current amount of motion around a joint as determined by the condition of the bones and the soft tissue surrounding the joint that hold it together.

What is Stretching?

Stretching, as it relates to physical health and fitness, is the process of placing particular parts of the body into a position that will lengthen, or elongate, the muscles and associated soft tissues. Upon undertaking a regular stretching program a number of changes begin to occur within the body and specifically within the muscles themselves. Other tissues that begin to adapt to the stretching process include the fascia, tendons, ligaments, skin and scar tissue.

Two Types of Stretching

Although there are many different ways to perform a stretch, they can all be grouped into one of two categories: Static or Dynamic.

  1. The term static stretches refers to stretches that are performed without movement. In other words, the individual gets into the stretch position and holds the stretch for a specific amount of time.
  2. The term dynamic stretches refers to stretches that are performed with movement. In other words, the individual uses a swinging or bouncing movement to extend their range of motion and flexibility.
Different Ways to Stretch

Many different ways to stretch

Just as there are many different ways to strength train, there are also many different ways to perform a stretch. However, it is important to note that although there are many different ways to stretch, no one way, or no one type of stretching is better than another. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the key to getting the most out of stretching lies in being able to match the right type of stretching to the purpose, or goal you are trying to achieve.

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

Listed below are five different types of static stretches.

  • Static Stretching: Static stretching is performed by placing the body into a position whereby the muscle (or group of muscles) to be stretched is under tension. Both the antagonist, or opposing muscle group and the agonist, or muscles to be stretched are relaxed. Then slowly and cautiously the body is moved to increase the tension of the muscle (or group of muscles) being stretched. At this point the position is held or maintained to allow the muscles to lengthen. A minimum hold time of about 20 seconds is required for the muscles to relax and start to lengthen, while diminishing returns are experienced after 60 seconds. Static stretching is a very safe and effective form of stretching with a limited threat of injury. It is a good choice for beginners and sedentary individuals.
  • Passive (or Assisted) Stretching: This form of stretching is very similar to static stretching; however another person or apparatus is used to help further stretch the muscles. Due to the greater force applied to the muscles, this form of stretching is slightly more hazardous. Therefore it is very important that any apparatus used is both solid and stable. When using a partner it is imperative that no jerky or bouncing force is applied to the stretched muscle. So, choose a partner carefully, the partner is responsible for the safety of the muscles and joints while performing the stretch. Passive stretching is useful in helping to attain a greater range of movement, but carries with it a slightly higher risk of injury. It can also be used effectively as part of a rehabilitation program or as part of a cool down.
  • Active Stretching: Active stretching is performed without any aid or assistance from an external force. This form of stretching involves using only the strength of the opposing muscles (antagonist) to generate a stretch within the targeted muscle group (agonist). The contraction of the opposing muscles helps to relax the stretched muscles. A classic example of an active stretch is one where an individual raises one leg straight out in front as high as possible and then maintains that position without any assistance from a partner or object. Active stretching is useful as a rehabilitation tool and a very effective form of conditioning before moving onto dynamic stretches. This type of stretchis usually quite difficult to hold and maintain for long periods of time and therefore the stretch position is usually only held for 10 to 15 seconds.

Reciprocal Inhibition: Also known as Sherrington’s law of reciprocal innervation, explains how a muscle will relax when its opposite muscle is activated. So by contracting one muscle group (agonist) it will force the opposing muscles group (antagonist) to relax. This is precisely what is occurring during Active Stretching.

  • PNF Stretching: PNF stretching, or Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation, is a more advanced form of flexibility training that involves both the stretching and contracting of the muscle group being targeted. PNF stretching was originally developed as a form of rehabilitation and for that function it is very effective. It is also excellent for targeting specific muscle groups, and as well as increasing flexibility, (and range of movement) it also improves muscular strength. There are many different variations of the PNF stretching principle and sometimes it is referred to as Contract-Relax stretching or Hold-Relax stretching. Post Isometric Relaxation (PIR) is another variation of the PNF technique. The area to be stretched is positioned so that the muscle (or muscle group) is under tension. The individual then contracts the stretched muscle group for 5 – 6 seconds while a partner (or immovable object) applies sufficient resistance to inhibit movement. The effort of contraction should be relevant to the level of conditioning. The contracted muscle group is then relaxed and a controlled stretch is applied for about 30 seconds. The athlete is then allowed 15 to 30 seconds to recover and the process is repeated 2 – 4 times.
  • Isometric Stretching: Isometric stretching is a form of passive stretching similar to PNF stretching, but the contractions are held for a longer period of time. Isometric stretching places high demands on the stretched muscles and is not recommended for children or adolescents who are still growing. Other recommendations include allowing at least 48 hours rest between isometric stretching sessions and performing only one isometric stretch per muscle group in a session. To perform an isometric stretch; assume the position of the passive stretch and then contract the stretched muscle for 10 to 15 seconds. Be sure that all movement of the limb is restricted. Then relax the muscle for at least 20 seconds. This procedure should be repeated two to five times.
Listed below are four different types of dynamic stretches.

  • Ballistic Stretching: Ballistic stretching is an outdated form of stretching that uses momentum generated by rapid swinging, bouncing and rebounding movements to force a body part past its normal range of movement. The risks associated with ballistic stretching far outweigh the gains, especially when better gains can be achieved by using other forms of stretching like dynamic stretching and PNF stretching. Other than potential injury, the main disadvantage of ballistic stretching is that it fails to allow the stretched muscle time to adapt to the stretched position and instead may cause the muscles to tighten up by repeatedly triggering the stretch reflex (or myotatic reflex).
  • Dynamic Stretching: Unlike ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching uses a controlled, soft bounce or swinging motion to move a particular body part to the limit of its range of movement. The force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled. Do not confuse dynamic stretching with ballistic stretching. Dynamic stretching is slow, gentle and very purposeful. At no time during dynamic stretching should a body part be forced past the joints normal range of movement. Ballistic stretching, on the other hand, is much more aggressive and its very purpose is to force the body part beyond the limit of its normal range of movement.
  • Active Isolated (AI) Stretching: Active isolated (AI) stretching is a new form of stretching developed by Aaron L. Mattes. AI stretching is sometimes referred to as the Mattes Method. It works by contracting the antagonist, or opposing muscle group, which forces the stretched muscle group to relax. While AI stretching certainly has some benefits (mainly for the professional or well conditioned athlete), it also has a lot of unsubstantiated claims. One such claim is that AI stretching does not engage the stretch reflex because the stretch is only held for 2 seconds or less. This is nonsense and defies basic muscle physiology. The stretch reflex in the calf muscle for example is triggered within 3 hundredths of a second, so any claim that AI stretching can somehow bypass or outsmart the stretch reflex is nothing more than fantasy.
  • Resistance Stretching and Loaded Stretching: Resistance stretching and loaded stretching are a form of dynamic stretching that both contract and lengthen a muscle at the same time. They work by stretching a muscle group through its entire range of motion while under contraction. For this reason, both resistance stretching and loaded stretching are as much about strengthening a muscle group as they are about stretching it. Like AI stretching above, resistance stretching and loaded stretching do have their benefits. Five time Olympic swimmer, Dara Torres credits a portion of her swimming success to the use of resistance stretching. However, these forms of stretching place high demands on the musculo-skeletal system and are therefore only recommended for professional or well conditioned athletes.

Which muscles should you 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 Stretch Myth

This follows on from the previous point. The idea of the “full-body” stretch 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 stretch 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.

Stretching before exercise or as part of your warm-up is great, but pre-exercise stretching is not meant to improve your flexibility; its purpose is simply to prepare you for exercise. So if you want to improve your range of motion, when is the best time to stretch? One of the best times to stretch is after your work out, as part of your cool-down. This is when your muscles are most warm and pliable, which makes it much easier to stretch and reach new levels of flexibility. Another great time to stretch is just before going to bed. This works at a neuromuscular level, as the increased muscle length is the last thing your nervous system remembers before going to sleep.

Should you stretch before exercise?

Misconceptions and misinformation are rampant when it comes to stretching and flexibility training. One such area of confusion relates to stretching before exercise. The confusion comes from a misinterpretation of a number of research studies that tested the effects of stretching prior to exercise. A number of these studies concluded that doing stretching before exercise resulted in decreased athletic performance… or did they?

The short answer is yes, but with most things the devil is in the detail. What a number of these studies found was that doing long-hold (15 – 30 seconds or more) static stretches immediately before power based activities like running, jumping and sprinting may have a detrimental effect on maximum strength, explosive power and speed.

In other words: Doing a very specific type of stretching, in a specific way, IMMEDIATELY before another specific activity, may have a negative effect on athletic performance.

Some people have misinterpreted this to mean that you shouldn’t do ANY stretching before ANY activity, which has unfortunately manifested into the “any stretching before exercise is bad” mantra that I hear frequently.

So… is it beneficial to use static (or PNF) stretching before exercise or as part of a warm up?

Yes, as long as the static stretching isn’t the last thing you do before doing an activity that requires maximum strength, explosive power or speed. In fact, further research has determined that no negative effects are observed when static stretching is conducted early in the warm-up and followed by sport specific drills or dynamic stretching.

Should you stretch everyday?

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 everyday 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 stretches 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.

Hold, Count, Repeat

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.

Breathe

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…

Stretching from the core out

Limited data exists on what order individual stretches should be done in. However, from working with 1,000’s of athletes over the last 25 years, I know that designing flexibility training programs that start with the core muscles of the stomach, sides, back and neck, and then work out to the extremities are most effective.

The health, stability and function of the core is essential for proper form and mechanics while performing any activity; from the most simple day-to-day movements right through to the most advanced sports skills. No one questions the importance of the core for strength training and it is just as important for stretching and flexibility training.

Stretching posture and alignment

Poor 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 stretches may put more emphasis on one particular muscle within that muscle group, thus causing an imbalance that could lead to injury.

The picture below, 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…

Stretching posture and alignment

8 Stretching Mistakes Most People Make

If you’re new to stretching and flexibility training, it may seem that stretching is pretty straight-forward: Throw your leg over a bench; lean into it; and away you go. But… there really is a lot more to it. In fact, get it right and stretching is relaxing, pleasurable and very beneficial. But get it wrong and you’re either wasting your time, or worse yet, setting yourself up for an injury.

Below you’ll find 8 common mistakes that most people make when stretching, and more importantly, how to avoid them.

1. Stretching an injury
Choosing the right type of stretching during your injury rehab will have a tremendous effect on the speed of your recovery, while choosing the wrong type could lead to further injury and a very slow recovery. So what type of stretching is best?

  • During the first 72 hours after an injury avoid all types of stretching. Stretching during this early stage of rehab will cause more damage to the injured tissues.
  • During the next 10 to 14 days ease into some light, gentle static and passive stretches.
  • During the next 2 to 5 weeks stick with static and passive stretches, but start to include PNF Stretching.
  • Once you’re over your injury and have started to regain the fitness components that were lost during the injury process, the best types of stretches to use are dynamic and active stretches.

2. Stretching too hard
Many people believe that to get the most out of their flexibility training they need to push their stretching to the extreme. This may have benefits with strength training and even cardiovascular training, but not with stretching. Let me explain why.

When the muscles are stretched too hard or to the point of pain, the body employs a defense mechanism called the stretch reflex. This is the body’s safety measure to prevent serious damage occurring to the muscles, tendons and joints. The stretch reflex protects the muscles and tendons by contracting them, thereby preventing them from being stretched.

So to avoid the stretch reflex, avoid pain. Never push the stretch beyond what is comfortable. Only stretch to the point where tension can be felt in the muscles. This way, injury will be avoided and the maximum benefits from stretching will be achieved.

3. Not holding the stretch long enough
For static and passive stretching, some texts recommend holding the stretch for as little as 15 seconds. This is a bare minimum. 15 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.

4. Doing the same stretch over and over again
Including a variety of stretches 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.

5. Trying to stretch everything
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.

For more details on why trying to stretch everything is a bad idea, watch my Full-Body Stretching Myth video above.

6. Stretching cold
Trying to stretch muscles that have not been warmed up, is like trying to stretch old, dry rubber bands; they may snap.

Warming up prior to stretching does a number of beneficial things, but primarily its purpose is to prepare the body and mind for more strenuous activity. One of the ways it achieves this is by increasing the body’s core temperature while also increasing the body’s muscle temperature. This helps to make the muscles loose, supple and pliable, and is essential to ensure the maximum benefits are gained from stretching.

7. Holding your breath
Many people unconsciously hold their breath while stretching. This causes tension in the muscles, which in turn makes it very difficult to stretch. To avoid this, remember to breathe slowly and deeply during all stretches. This helps to relax the muscles, promotes blood flow and increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.

8. Looking for a quick fix
When someone starts a diet, they understand that it’s going to take time before they see results. Likewise, when someone starts going to the gym, they understand that it’s going to take time before they start getting stronger. And the same is true with stretching.

Doing a few stretches before playing your sport or going to the gym isn’t going to make you any more flexibility. If you want to see improvements in your flexibility, there are no shortcuts, you need to engage in regular, consistent flexibility training over the long term.

More Stretching Questions Answered

The Big Book of Stretch RoutinesWhile 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 and stretching routines.

Get over 150 of the best stretch routines to do away with injuries; increase your flexibility; improve your sporting performance; and become loose, limber and pain free.

There's a routine for every muscles group in your body, plus daily stretching routines to help prevent over 35 different injuries. Get your daily stretching routines here.

Research and References

Brad Walker - AKA The Stretch CoachAbout the Author: Brad Walker 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 (author page) 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 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.

Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.

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