Stretching: When To Do It, How To Do It

When and How You Should Be Stretching

I don’t stretch as much as I should – that’s what I caught myself telling a friend over dinner the other night. He had asked me what my thoughts were about stretching – when to stretch, how often, for how long, etc. As I was informing him of my knowledge on the subject, I felt a certain sense of guilt in regards to my own stretching regiment because, in all honesty, I don’t really stretch that often.

But I’m a Physical Therapist! I’m supposed to embody total health all day, every day! Shouldn’t I be stretching morning, noon, and night?

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you feel like you should be stretching more. Or maybe you feel like it’s unclear why you’re stretching in the first place and what kind of benefit it will have.

Well, I’ve got some good news for us both: how you stretch and when you stretch is more important than spending more time stretching…

Stretch Goals

Before we can talk about what you should and shouldn’t do in regards to stretching, we must first understand your intentions.

Here are few questions to consider: are you looking to…

  • Become more flexible?
  • Prevent injury when exercising?
  • Perform better when playing a sport?
  • Lessen pain in a specific area?
  • Improve general health?

Keep your goals in mind as you continue reading to see what you can be doing differently to get the most out of stretching.

Side note: If your goal is to become a Cirque du Soleil performer or an elite gymnast, stop reading this and go stretch for the rest of the day!

Now, before we dive too much deeper, there are a couple of definitions worth understanding…

2 Basic Types of Stretches:

  • Static: a stretch to lengthen a stiff muscle by taking it passively to its end range for a prolonged period of time.
  • Dynamic: a stretch used to prime a muscle for activity or sport by using momentum to take it throughout its full range of motion.

There are many other stretch techniques, all of which have their specific benefits, but for our purposes here, we’ll talk about static and dynamic stretching.

Now let’s attempt to answer a few questions that I get all the time in regards to stretching…

Should You Stretch Before or After Exercise?

Most people I talk to perform static stretches before they work out, run, or play a sport. They say that it loosens them up with the belief that it lowers their risk of injury. I did this for years. Every coach I had since I was a kid gave the team static stretches to do before playing. Yours likely did the same.

Well, you may want to brace yourself for this…

Surprisingly, research suggests static stretching prior to exercise or sport shows NO incidence of reducing injury rates1. Additionally, static stretching prior to exercise can actually lower your physical performance – causing a 12% reduction in maximal voluntary contraction of muscles2 – due to its inhibiting effects.

Think about it, when you stretch a muscle, it relaxes. Why would you do this right before you are going to do a physically demanding activity?

So you can blame your less-than-elite performance on your ill-advised coaches. Kind of bums you out to think about it, doesn’t it? You could have made the pros!

Oh well…

So, what to do instead? Rather than relaxing your muscles before exercise, you need to warm them up to get them ready. Dynamic stretching should be utilized as a warm-up prior to exercise. Yes, dynamic stretching can actually improve performance3 by increasing blood flow to muscles, speed of nerve impulses, and oxygen delivery while increasing flexibility and force of muscle contraction4.

With all of its performance benefits, though, even including dynamic stretching as a warm-up does not necessarily lower your risk of injury5.

Here’s a list of a few good dynamic stretches you can utilize:

  • Knee to chest: walk slowly and with each step grab and pull the knee to your chest for 2 seconds.
  • Butt-kickers: jog in place or forward as you kick your feet up behind you
  • Deep walking lunges: lunge forward with a big step while leaning your upper body toward the ground
  • Lunge twists: twist the upper body to the side of the forward lunging leg
  • Wind-mills: stand with feet spread wide apart, arms outstretched to your sides, reach the right hand down to touch the left toes, then back to starting position. Alternate sides.
  • High kicks: keeping the leg straight, kick it forward so the toes touch the outstretched opposite hand. Alternate sides.

Before you give up on static stretching altogether, turns out it may have some redeeming value after all…

After your workout is a good time to perform static stretches. Following exercise, muscles are stiff and remain stiff for up to 1-4 days6. My recommendation would be to stretch statically immediately following exercise to return the muscle to its pre-exercise length and prevent it from getting stiffer.

To recap:

  • Warm-up including dynamic stretching pre-exercise
  • Static stretching post-exercise

Does Stretching Decrease Pain and Soreness?

Somewhere in your brain there’s a memory of your 6th grade PE teacher telling you to stretch so you won’t get sore later.

Well, just like when he told you rubbing dirt on your bleeding knee would make it heal, he was wrong.

As for soreness, research shows that stretching before or after exercise has no effect on delayed onset muscle soreness7.

I know…it blew my mind, too.

However, studies show that more-flexible people in general are less likely to experience exercise-induced muscle damage (strength loss, pain, muscle tenderness), which can result in soreness8. Simply put, a more-flexible person may get less sore than a less-flexible person.

This begs the question: to get more flexible…

How Long Should You Hold a Stretch? And How Often?

A study was conducted to measure the duration and frequency of stretching to improve hamstring muscle flexibility. The study found that a 30 second stretch 1 time per day was effective for increasing hamstring range of motion. Additional findings showed that increasing a stretch from 30 to 60 seconds showed no added benefit and increasing frequency of stretching from 1 to 3 times per day showed no added benefit9.

Bottom line: to improve muscle flexibility, you should hold a static stretch at least 30 seconds, once per day.

By the way, when I say 30 seconds, I mean the time it takes the second hand to go around a clock half-way. 30 seconds in your head is not really 30 seconds. We humans are always in a hurry and tend to count much faster.

Insider tip: I usually tell people to count to 60 while holding a static stretch and – based on my un-official day-to-day research – it ends up being closer to 30 seconds when compared to the actual clock. I’ve found this to be true with my own personal stretching, as well. I’ll catch myself skipping numbers when counting in my head, subconsciously trying to get the stretch over with!

Another tidbit of information you may want to keep in mind: it may take 4-6 weeks to see an actual change in muscle length by stretching regularly, so keep it up and be consistent.

Are There Certain Stretches You Should Be Doing Every Day?

There are two posture-related syndromes that are common – to a certain degree – in many people. In the upper body, Upper Crossed Syndrome presents as a ‘slouch’ position with a forward head and rounded shoulders. In the lower body, the Lower Crossed Syndrome displays an arched lower back and a forward tilt of the pelvis.

What contributes to these two syndromes is tightness in certain muscles and weakness in others.

Because these syndromes are so common and because certain muscles that contribute are prone to tightness, I would recommend everyone stretch these muscles regularly.

  • For Upper Crossed Syndrome, tightness occurs in:
    • The Upper Trapezius, Levators, and Suboccipitals
    • The Pecs
  • For Lower Crossed Syndrome, tightness occurs in:
    • The Hip Flexors
    • The Lumbar Extensors

For much more information on Upper and Lower Crossed Syndromes including specific exercises with photos and step-by-step instructions, you can download my free eBook Why You Have Bad Posture and How To Make It Better.

3 Key Points To Remember

Stretching is one of those things we all feel like we aren’t doing enough of. Therefore, it usually gets put on the backburner. “If I have extra time, I’ll do it,” we say to ourselves. Inevitably, though, we just don’t.

As it turns out, though, you might not need to be spending that much time stretching, after all!

If you stretch the right way, at the right times, and do it consistently, you can make improvements in your performance and flexibility.”

Based on the research, if you’re looking for general stretching benefits in daily life and exercise, here are the 3 main points to remember:

  1. Stretching a muscle for 30 seconds once per day is enough to increase muscle length over a period of at least 4-6 weeks.
  2. Utilizing dynamic stretches during your warm-up before exercise can improve performance.
  3. Static stretching after exercise can prevent muscles from getting stiffer.

For further advice, I would recommend you seek an individualized evaluation from a Physical Therapist to pinpoint exactly what you should be working on based on any specific impairments (stiff muscles) you might have.

Question: What does your current stretching program look like? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

  1. Pope RP, et al. A randomized trial of preexercise stretching for prevention of lower-limb injury. Official Jour of the Amer College of Sports Med. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: 271-277. ↩︎
  2. Behm DG, et al. Factors Affecting Force Loss With Prolonged Stretching. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiolgoy. 2001 Vol 26 (3): 262-272. ↩︎
  3. McMillan DJ, et al. Dynamic vs. Static stretching warm up: the effect on power and agility performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2006 Vol 20 (3). ↩︎
  4. Thacker SB, et al. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: A systematic review of the literature. Official Jour of the Amer College of Sports Med. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2004: 371-378. ↩︎
  5. Thacker SB, et al. The impact of stretching on sports injury risk: A systematic review of the literature. Official Jour of the Amer College of Sports Med. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2004: 371-378. ↩︎
  6. Jones DA, et al. Skeletal muscle stiffness and pain following eccentric exercise of the elbow flexors. Pain, 30 (1987) 233-242. ↩︎
  7. Herbert RD, Gabriel M. Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review. BMJ 2002; 325:468. ↩︎
  8. McHugh MP, et al. The role of passive muscle stiffness in symptoms of exercise-induced muscle damage. The American Journal of sports medicine 1999. Vol 27(5): 594-599. ↩︎
  9. Bandy WD, et al. The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Physical Therapy. Volume 77. Number 10, October 1997. ↩︎
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  • Tim H.

    Great information on stretching Mike! I have had lower back pain over the years and I have been told I need to strengthen my back. What are your suggestions for stretching and strengthening my lower back?

    • Michael Curtis

      Thanks Tim! A lot of people tell me the same thing. I don’t disagree that a stronger back is a good thing, it definitely is, and there are some great exercises out there for it (birddogs, deadlifts if done properly, I also like planks and side planks). I wrote a recent post called The 5 Weakest Areas of Your Body and How To Strengthen Them. The Core is one of those areas. The reason the core is so important is that it helps support your back. Also, posture is super important for your back. It doesn’t matter how strong you are if you are putting yourself in prolonged static positions that are putting stress and strain on your back. Along with static postures are your movement patterns – how you do things – that can put excessive strain there, as well. My eBook on posture addresses these issues and offers some simple exercises that can help. I don’t mean to skirt the question about how to strengthen your back, but rather give you a bigger picture of what can be contributing to your pain and where you might better apply your efforts. Hope this helps!

      • Joanna

        Hi Michael! I really enjoy your blog Articles. I have a comment /question for you regarding most important stretches for the upper body. You don’t list SCM/scalens stretches and I’m wondering why, I always thought that they are more important to stretch Than the upper trapezius in forward head posture. Am I missing something in regards to the upper trap vs SCM/scalenes? Which gets tighter and influences posturę more?
        I’m curious what you think and why. Thanks 🙂

        • Michael Curtis

          Hi Joanna. You are absolutely right that the SCM are involved in Upper Crossed Syndrome along with Upper Traps, Levator, Suboccipitals, and Pecs. In listing the muscles that I believe are most important to stretch, I tried to keep it as simple for the general public as possible. The Upper Traps and Pecs are the largest of these muscles and, therefore, by stretching them, people will probably get the most bang for their buck. Didn’t mean to downplay the other muscles, just trying to keep it simple and general without doing an evaluation on someone. If I were to do an evaluation, of course, specific muscles could be tested for length and hypertonicity and treated accordingly.

  • Brandon Johnson

    Thank you! Fellow PT here, I’m posting this on my website. Great info!

    • Michael Curtis

      Thanks Brandon!