Stretching incorrectly can do more harm than good! Make the most of your go-to stretches with this guide.
Whether it was Jane Fonda or the grade school gym teacher who taught us to sit and reach, from a young age we’ve been conditioned to associate stretching with exercise. But what we know now is that more than one form of stretching exists, ranging from more active methods (referred to as dynamic) to more passive variations (also known as static). While active variations are more appropriate for warming up for exercise, research suggests that passive stretches are best saved for after a workout.
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So while mimicking other gym members might be OK when adjusting cycling bikes, it’s probably not your best approach on the stretching mats. To help you navigate the quest for greater flexibility — and overall mobility — we’ve outlined five stretches that are typically performed incorrectly and how to get in the correct position next time. Dr. Mike Reinold, a Physical Therapist and Performance Enhancement Specialist in Boston, recommends holding each stretch for 30 seconds before moving on. Also, don’t forget to pay equal attention to both sides of your body — it’s not uncommon to find that one side is tighter than the other.
Note: Stretching might not be the best answer for every situation. When dealing with injuries or joints and muscles that are particularly painful, always consult your physician prior to implementing a new stretch.
1. Hip Flexors
Hours spent in a chair all day at the office can wreak havoc on your hips. The seated position drastically tightens up your hip flexors, which can in turn cause issues in your lower back and across other areas of your body.
What You’re Doing Wrong: For a solution, many frequent sitters turn to the runner’s lunge (so named because of its popularity among runners). In this stretch, participants drop into a lunge with one foot flat on the ground and the other leg resting on the knee. While the stretch is effective, most enthusiasts overdo it. “When stretching the hip flexors, many people incorrectly either arch their back or torque their hip joint rather than truly stretch their hip flexor,” Dr. Reinold says.
When it comes to stretching properly, less can in fact be more. By backing off the stretch and avoiding the urge to push pain thresholds, frequent sitters can actually get more out of the exercise. In addition to self-restraint, consciously contracting certain muscles can ensure properly positioning. How to: To get into position, place your right foot flat on the ground and kneel down on your left knee. Both knees should be at 90 degrees. From this position, gently shift your weight forward, which will extend your left knee behind your body and cause a stretch in the front of your left hip. Make sure you keep your core as tight as possible and squeeze your left glute. The former helps to keep your lower back in the proper position while the latter relaxes your hip flexors for a greater stretch.
After being hunched forward over a computer all day (or spending some quality time on the bench press!), your pectoralis major and minor (the two main muscles in your chest) can get extremely tight and sore. In addition to reinforcing poor posture, a tight chest can disrupt breathing patterns and increase risk of injury during other sporting activities.
What You’re Doing Wrong: Unfortunately, your gut reaction to hang onto a stationary object and wrench your body in the opposite direction can lead to a greater risk of injury for two reasons. First, your shoulder joint has a large degree of motion compared to other joints in the body and therefore, an increased risk of injury. Second, this position, in general, lends itself to over-stretching. When you combine the two, you have a recipe for disaster.
To put yourself at a lower risk of injury, simply bend your elbow to 90 degrees when performing the stretch, which shortens the lever arm and decreases the amount of torque put on your shoulder. How to: Start standing in an open doorway or to the left of a wall or post. Step forward slightly with your left foot so you’re positioned in a shallow lunge. Place your right elbow on the wall or door ensuring that your right elbow is at 90 degrees and your right arm is at a 90-degree angle to your torso. Pull in your abdominals and keep your rib cage down, avoiding the urge to hyper-extend your lower back. Gently shift your weight forward to increase the stretch on your right shoulder. Then, slowly turn your head to face slightly left to increase the stretch. To maximize your stretching potential, focus on deep belly breathing. According to Dr. Reinold, “By deep breathing with the diaphragm or crocodile breathing, you encourage proper breathing mechanics, which will help your neck muscles relax.” This culminates in the best possible stretch for a tight chest.
Readily noticeable in swimmers and folks spending quite a bit of time on the pull-up bar, the lats (short for latissimus dorsi) are two large muscles that run from the upper arm all the way down to the lower back. When functioning properly, they assist in most rowing and pulling movements. However, when they are too tight, these muscles can contribute to poor posture and improper breathing patterns.
What You’re Doing Wrong: While there might not be a common stretch for your lats (or one you would see too often), the most frequently used method involves holding onto a stationary object (like a bannister or the back of a bench) with both of your hands and sitting back on your heels into a squat or crouched position. While participants may feel a stretch in their shoulder blades, this particular lat stretch fails to address two important elements. First, by stretching both arms at one time, you’re ignoring flexibility differences from one arm to the other. Second, this position often encourages individuals to ignore the positioning of their lower back, which is a critical element for optimizing the stretch.
Moving the stretch to a kneeling position removes a good bit of the leg work required to get into proper positioning. How to: Grab a stability ball and kneel down on both knees. Place your right hand on top of the ball with your thumb pointing up and your right arm fully extended. Adjust your body so that your left hand is supporting you on the ground and your shoulders and knees are at 90 degrees relative to your body. Gently lower your chest towards the ground effectively extending your right shoulder until you feel a gentle stretch by your shoulder blade. At the bottom position, take a deep breath out and pull your rib cage down.
The standard bend-over-and-touch-your-toes may have worked fine in middle school, but the stretch actually does little for your hamstrings. In fact, most of the stretch is concentrated in another area entirely — your lower back.
What You’re Doing Wrong: When you bend over with your legs straight, your hamstrings will stretch to a point. Then, your back will start to round. From that point forward, every additional inch of stretching isn’t doing any good for your tight hamstrings.
The easiest way to perform this stretch properly is to keep your back flat. Rather than bending over, try the stretch lying down as the floor creates a natural guide to keep your back inline. How to: Lie down on the ground and hook a stretching rope (or thick exercise band) around your foot. Keeping your other foot down and your back flat on the ground, raise your leg until you feel a gentle stretch in your hamstrings. When lying down isn’t an option, place one foot up on an object between knee- and hip-height. Bend slightly forward, keeping your back flat and moving only at the waist.
A stiff neck ranks up there as one of the most common complaints among office workers everywhere. From talking on a cell phone to eating a taco, our neck seems to always be cranked into awkward positions. The result is an array of issues ranging from neck pain to increased likelihood of headaches.
What You’re Doing Wrong: While it seems natural, wrenching your neck in different directions likely isn’t the best way to relieve tight muscles. The aggressive stretching can lead to increased tightness rather than relief.
To reduce the strain on your neck, focus on slow, controlled movements that help to stretch out the front part of your neck. How to: Start standing with your feet about hip-width apart and your hands at your sides with your palms facing forward. Your shoulders and head should be relaxed. Keep your shoulders even as you gently look up and behind your right shoulder. At the end point of the exercise, you should feel a gentle stretch in the front-left portion of your neck.
It’s important to note that stretching shouldn’t be uncomfortable. In fact, pushing to the point of pain can cause muscles to tighten up further rather than relax. Breathing is also critical. Once you find the right position, try to breath deeply. This will help your muscles relax and give you a better stretch. By combining the right position and technique, you’ll be well on your way to a healthier, happier (and bendier!) you.