We naturally do it first thing in the morning, reaching high and long into the air to rid our body of tension and stress, yet many of us skip the stretching portion of our workout, promising to do it next time. Love it or hate it, stretching is an essential component for many in leading a healthy and fit lifestyle.
Building a daily stretch sequence is simple and comes with a slew of health benefits, from increasing range of motion and improving flexibility, to warding off the risk of injury—all from just 10 minutes of mat time a day.
Whether you’re new to stretching, need a boost of motivation, or would like to elevate your stretch game, listen up! We’ve asked the experts to break down the various forms of stretching, how long to hold each stretch to gain the full benefit, and which myths should be debunked.
Meet the Expert
- Heather Jeffcoat, DPT is the owner of Fusion Wellness & Physical Therapy in Los Angeles. She holds a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and is a certified fascial stretch therapist and Pilates instructor.
- Andrea Fornarola is a professional dancer and fitness guru from Manhattan, NYC, and is the Founder and Director of Elements™ Fitness Studio.
Does Stretching Actually Have Proven Benefits?
Although stretching serves its individual purpose to each person, collectively, the overriding consensus on stretching is its positive role across many aspects of our health. But these benefits depend on how and why we stretch.
At its simplest, many find stretching a welcome relief. “I work mainly with patients suffering with chronic pain, and for them, stretching feels great—it’s like accessing an itch that has been building up slowly over time which can temporarily relieve pain,” explains Heather Jeffcoat.
“However, stretching almost always needs to be followed in these cases by some stability work, [with] a focus on increasing restricted joint mobility and working through their active range of motion, alternating with strengthening and activities such as Pilates,” says Jeffcoat.
When viewing stretching as a science, findings on its effectiveness vary, with some experts singing its praises louder than others. “I think it’s important to look at the decades of quality research and clinical experience that has been put out and continues to be put out addressing the positive effects of stretching," Jeffcoat says. "It’s something that works differently for each individual patient."
At its core, stretching is a welcome opportunity to tap into our body and mind for some welcome ‘me’ time.
Is There an Ideal Time to Stretch?
Depending on our schedules, routines and workout go-tos, stretch timing will differ from person to person. However, experts point to specific times which may reap the most positive impact: “Both morning and evening are great times to stretch because both signify a time when your body revs up for the day and unwinds from the day,” explains Andrea Fornarola. “Morning is an optimum time to stretch to reduce stiffness in the joints and awaken the body so that it moves more functionally throughout the day.”
This is especially true the more we age, given cartilage can dry out and reduced levels of synovial fluid is produced to lubricate joints. In addition, due to inactivity, muscles and tendons become tighter during sleep, and so a gentle morning stretch is a refreshing wake up for the body. “Evening is also a perfect time to sneak in a stretch following a full day of activity, as it helps to lengthen the muscles and realign the muscular-skeletal system”.
Stretching also plays a role before and after exercise, both to warm up the body, increase blood flow, and improve flexibility. “A static or passive stretch is a technique best used after exercise or sport as part of a cool-down routine," explains Jeffcoat. "Gentle static stretching is also great for chronic pain." On the other end of the spectrum, dynamic, active stretching is conducted as you slowly move in and out of your full available range of motion to procure a brief stretching sensation. "These tend to be more functional, and I instruct patients to perform them prior to their exercise or sport, essentially mimicking patterns they are about to perform, helping to warm up the neuromuscular control of the muscle by prepping it for the upcoming functional movements," he explains.
How Long Should Each Stretch Last?
While experts claim stretches can be held from as little as 10 seconds to feel the benefit and up to minutes at a time, it’s both dependent on the individual and the type of stretch. According to Jeffcoat, a static stretch is achieved by holding a single position for 30 seconds, while dynamic stretching can be conducted in a rep manner for around 10-12 repetitions.
Similarly, Fornarola recommends holding a static stretch between 30-60 seconds to achieve a lengthening of muscles and increase in flexibility before repeating a few times to gain the full benefit of the stretch. “An interesting rule of thumb is to stretch for one minute for every two minutes of exercise; so, for instance, if you complete a 30-minute workout, you should spend at least 15 minutes stretching.”
And if we’re crunched for time? “A long stretch may be an unattainable goal for some, but even factoring in at least five minutes of stretching before and after each workout will warm-up and cool-down the body efficiently.”
What Are Some Common Stretching Mistakes to Avoid?
Mistakes can arise in our body positioning and also the degree of stretch, such as trying too hard to push out with our stretching boundaries, risking tearing of muscle fibers. The muscle has a natural protective response called "the stretch reflex" that allows the muscle to contract in response to the stretch, but pushing beyond this resistance can cause damage and counteracts the goal of stretching.
“If one side is more restricted than the other, it should be worked on more through a combination of rolling out and stretching,” explains Jeffcoat. “I have many patients stretch their hamstrings three or four times over, and I avoid stretching their quads or hip flexors as there always needs to be a balance in the system.”
As a rule of thumb: stretch until you feel an onset of resistance, backing off before any sharp or painful sensations are felt. “I always tell my patients that if it feels good and is temporarily relieving, then to continue stretching. If it makes you feel worse, stop. Listen to your body and go with what feels good.”
What Simple, Yet Effective Stretches Are a Good Start for Beginners?
If stretching is a new and somewhat bewildering concept for you, it’s wise to ease into a regimen small steps at a time. Here are three of Fornarola’s suggested stretches for beginners.
Hamstring Stretch with Resistance Band
“Lying flat on your back, place a resistance band under the right foot and keep the left foot on the ground with the knee at a 90-degree angle. Stretch the right leg away from the body using the band as a guide. Hold for 30 seconds, slowly inching the leg closer to the torso. Repeat with the opposite leg.”
IT Band Stretch with Resistance Band
“After stretching the hamstring, it’s great to continue with the IT band [Ed. note: the connective tissue extending down the side of the leg from the hip bone to the shinbone]. Insert the right foot into the resistance band and straighten the left leg out. Then, stretch the right leg across the midline of the body towards your left shoulder. Keep both of your hips flat on the floor. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat with the opposite leg.”
Figure-4 Stretch (Lying Down)
“Lying flat with your back on the floor, hug both knees into your chest, before drawing the left leg up to make a figure-4 shape by resting your left ankle against the right knee/thigh. Take your hands behind your right leg and draw the legs into the chest and hold to feel a stretch. Repeat this with your opposite leg.”
Instead of holding for a set time, Jeffcoat prefers that her patients conduct a number of breath cycles. Her go-to stretches for newbies include:
Lunging Hip Flexor Stretch
“Kneel onto both knees, then place the right foot in front of you. Take a deep breath in and exhale as you push your hips further forward, feeling the stretch in the front of the left hip and thigh. Hold for 7-10 seconds then inhale and ease out of the stretch. Exhale as you lunge into the stretch again and repeat 4-5 cycles. As a bonus, if you feel balanced, float your left arm straight to the ceiling as you inhale, exhale, and side bend to the right. This will deepen your left hip stretch as well as work on back mobility. Repeat on the other side.”
“This stretch is great for the mid back and lats. On your hands and knees, rock your hips back to your feet and sit back onto your glutes. Drop your head and walk your hands forward and take 4-5 slow deep breaths. Keeping your head down, slowly walk your hands over to the right. This will deepen the stretch on your left side. Take 4-5 slow, deep breaths before repeating on the right side, and end in the center with one final set.”
“Roll a beach towel and lie on your back so it supports from your head to your tailbone. Bend your knees, keeping your feet flat. Spread both your arms out to the side. Turn your head to the right, stretch the left side of your neck and front of your left shoulder. Take 4-5 slow, deep breaths and then rotate your neck to the left. Repeat each side three times total. With practice, this can also be performed on a foam roller.”
Seated Figure-4 With a Twist
“Sit on the ground with both legs straight in front of you. Place your left ankle above your right knee to make an upside down figure-4. Then use your hands to push your weight forward into the stretch. You will feel the stretch behind your right leg and left hip. The next position is to hug your left knee towards your chest as you rotate your torso to the left. This will deepen the stretch on the left hip. Hold each position for 5-6 slow, deep breaths.”