Stretching every day won’t necessarily make you a better athlete — that’s been a bit of a myth, says sports medicine physician Susan Joy, MD, director of women’s sports health at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health. But stretching each of our big muscle groups is very important for staving off injuries, helping to recover from an injury and for overall mobility (especially for older adults). Stretching also helps correct flexibility imbalances — which we all have, from both a sedentary lifestyle (sitting at a desk) and exercise (like walking, running, biking, golf or other pursuits). When half your muscles are overstretched and the other half are taut as bongo drums, it affects your everyday movement. So, for example, overly tight hamstrings combined with loose quads can wind up changing your gait when you run or walk, eventually compromising the curve of your lower back — which can lead to misalignment, pain and even injury.
The American College of Sports Medicine advises that you devote time to stretching two to three days a week, holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds, with three or four repetitions per stretch. Although we used to think stretching was the way to warm up before exercise, now we know that it’s best to warm up before you stretch. “Get yourself to where you feel like you are heating up inside, because muscles lengthen in the heat and contract in the cold,” Dr. Joy says. The next eight slides — some adopted from yoga, others from physical therapy — offer stretches for many of our chronically tight places.
Modified Downward Facing Dog
This is a great way to open up the shoulders and chest, but it’s gentler than traditional down dog (done with hands and feet both on the floor), says yoga teacher and fitness coach Sage Rountree, author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga. Stand three to four feet from a wall and reach your hands straight out, so that your palms are flat on the wall. Drop your head through your shoulders as you push against the wall, dropping your chest so it’s parallel to the floor. Keep your elbows slightly bent, but keep your back straight (you may have to adjust your distance from the wall). You should feel a great opening through your shoulders and chest — like one big yawn. You can also do this on a sturdy table, as long as it’s not too low.
Standing Side Stretch
Rountree loves this for stretching the front and sides of the body. Start in mountain pose (feet hip-width apart and pressed into the earth, back straight, shoulders back and down, arms at sides). Reach arms up to the ceiling and interface fingers into a shotgun position. Inhale deeply, exhale and lean to one side. Hold for a few breaths, return to center and repeat to the other side.
This is a wonderful and easy stretch for your lower back, says exercise physiologist Heather Nettle, MA, coordinator of exercise physiology services for the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation Center. Start on all fours. Inhale, exhale and gently arch your back up like an angry cat. You can also let your spine fall into cow, where you let your belly fall toward the ground into a slight arch and drop your head back. However, be careful when you do this, Nettle says, because it can exacerbate spine issues if you have lumbar stenosis or a herniated lumbar disc (just stay in cat if you have either of these).
Supine Hamstring Stretch
Hamstrings are notoriously tight for both athletes and nonathletes, Nettle says, and this stretch is effective for all levels of fitness. Lying supine on the floor, slightly bend one knee and place foot flat on the ground. Extend other leg straight and raise straight up until it is as close to a 90-degree angle as possible while still keeping leg straight. If this is a challenge, just breathe and hold it there for 20 seconds. If this isn’t challenging, grab behind your knee and gently pull it toward your chest (trying to keep your leg straight) and hold for 20 seconds. You can also straighten your bottom leg all the way to the floor for an even greater stretch (but try with foot flat first).
Standing Quadriceps Stretch
It’s not uncommon for quads and hamstrings to be unbalanced (one more flexible than the other), so make sure you stretch both, Nettle says. To stretch quads, stand close to a stable object you can hold on to (like a wall, table or stretching partner). Raise the leg on the side of your free hand, and bend the knee behind you. Grasp the foot and hold gently (breathing all the time!). Hold stretch for at least 20 seconds and repeat three times on each side.
Our calves are a super hardworking muscle group — not just when you exercise, but also if you tend to wear high heels. Make sure you take time to kick off your shoes and stretch these muscles, Nettle says. Start with your front foot about a foot from the wall and your back foot two or more feet from the wall. Lean in, place hands on the wall to balance, and bend your front leg. Keep your back leg fully extended and focus on pressing your back heel down. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat three times on each leg.
This yoga pose is a little more challenging (skip this if you have knee issues), but it is a wonderful stretch for opening up your hips, Rountree says. As you squat down, you will need to lean forward, but try not to hunch. Use your elbows to press your knees open. Make sure that your knees and toes are both facing in the same direction, though, with your knees just over your toes. Inhale and exhale several rounds of breath here as you press those knees open.
This yoga pose is a precursor to more difficult yoga poses, such as the camel or full backbend, but it’s wonderful all on its own because it opens up your heart center and lets you stretch your chest and open your shoulders. As you kneel down, your toes can either be tucked under or turned up, Rountree says. Reach for your ankles (or the floor) behind you, either one hand at a time or both hands simultaneously, and feel the great release across your chest. Gently let the weight of your head fall back, and let your neck relax and your jaw unclench.
A foam roller can add a new dimension to your stretching routine, making it feel like you’re getting a massage! Your body weight acts as the pressure as you roll your back, shoulders, quadriceps, and sides of legs against the roller, relieving tension in your connective tissue.