Woman stretching

Okay, time to spill: How many of you neglect stretching pre- and post-workout? (Bashfully raises hand.) You’re preaching to the choir, sister. In fact, I don’t think I ever learned how to stretch properly – which could explain why I’m a walking Robaxacet commercial.

It’s an understandable conundrum: Most of us are so focused on finding time to exercise we don’t want anything else to “cut into it,” when in fact it’s uber-important to stretch the main muscle groups you plan on using. In other words, stop being a slouch.

Here’s how to stretch properly in 8 simple steps:

1. Warm up first

Many of us tend to lump together stretching and warming up to save time, when these should always be completely separate entities. If you try to stretch your muscles when they’re cold, they’ll be more likely to tear. Always do mild aerobic moves beforehand – like brisk walking, jumping jacks, or squats. This will increase blood flow, heat up your muscles and make them more flexible.

2. Do dynamic stretches pre-workout

We often make the mistake of doing static stretches before we work out and then nothing afterward, when in fact we should be doing dynamic stretches before and static stretches after. Dynamic stretches are slow, controlled movements rather than standing still and holding a stretch. For example: Walking lunges, arm circles, knee lifts, and yoga sun salutations.

3. Personalize your routine

We all have different exercise routines that intrigue or inspire us, so learn warm-ups and stretches specific to your workout (especially if you play sports). This will also help you learn the types of injuries you’ll be most vulnerable to because of the workouts you enjoy.

The level of stretching everyone needs is different. For example, if you work long hours at a desk job, you’re going to have majorly stiff muscles compared to friends who have physically demanding jobs. Always make sure to give your muscles the extra attention they deserve before a workout.

4. Don’t push through pain

When it comes to how to stretch, nix “no pain no gain” from your vocab. Your stretches should cause gentle pulling or pressure to improve your flexibility – not snap you like a twig. Pain means your muscle’s contracting to protect itself, so anytime you feel pain it’s time to pull back.

5. Do static stretching post-workout

Static stretching is where you stretch a muscle and hold the stretch for several seconds. It helps reduce post-gym soreness and restores your range of motion so you’re not stiff as a board for the rest of the day.

6. Take your time

Don’t rush through the stretching process. Move slowly and fluently, and make sure to breathe deeply (this helps increase your stretch). Hold each static stretch for 5-10 seconds (even up to 30 seconds if you’re comfortable).

7. Stretch daily, not just on gym days

You should stretch consistently, even on your days off – this will help increase flexibility and range of motion. If there’s one thing for you to keep in mind about how to stretch, it’s this: The less often you stretch, the more likely you’ll lose flexibility over time.

Plus, it’s a great way to de-stress: When you’re going through periods of emotional stress, your muscles contract, since your body’s essentially protecting itself from danger. Stretching daily will prevent chronic tension and protect against future injuries.

8. Constantly adjust your process

Your stretching routine should be customized based on the type of exercise you enjoy and your specific physical strengths and weaknesses (for example, if you’re prone to back pain). Certain workouts tend to tighten muscles more than others, so make sure you’re familiar with overuse injuries that might occur, or muscles you have to stretch so you can get through your workout pain-free.

What’s the best tip you received when learning how to stretch?

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Image: Kris Krug