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How to stretch for happier muscles, whether you work out or not

If “warm-up” and “cool-down” are optional in your mind, read this now.

A woman touching her toes on a yoga mat. Credit: Getty Images / Delmaine Donson

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Whether you're a regular at the gym or your lifestyle is less active, stretching is important for happy and healthy muscles. Not only does it keep you limber, it may prevent injury or even help boost your athletic performance. But compared to using high-tech exercise equipment, beloved fitness trackers, or fancy recovery tools, stretching may feel like a mundane part of your routine. And if you don't have time for the gym, you might also feel like you don't have time to dedicate to stretching.

To get the most out of your time spent stretching, you’ll need to set aside more than a few minutes. To find out the right ways to warm up, cool down, and get bendier in general, we spoke with personal trainer Austin Martinez, director of education for StretchLab.

Why is stretching important?

A woman stretching her quad muscle standing at her desk.
Credit: Getty Images / martin-dm

Stretching has tons of benefits for your body.

At its core, regular stretching can increase your flexibility and mobility, which can help you avoid muscle imbalances and prevent injury. If you work out, you’re prone to developing tight muscles and, in turn, a limited range of motion that can result in joint pain, muscle strains, and even injury.

“It's one of the things that's often overlooked in health, wellness, and fitness,” says Martinez. “People are very quick to say things like ‘I need to become more fit’ or ‘I need to become stronger,’ but then ignore the basics such as flexibility and mobility. In order to become stronger, to become faster, you have to be able to move well, you have to be able to sustain those movements without leading to injury over time.”

Aside from keeping your muscles in working order, stretching has many other benefits for avid exercisers. It helps your muscles heal and can decrease recovery time between workouts. It can also enhance your sports performance.

Even if you don’t work out regularly, stretching is essential. Moving too little, like if you sit at a desk all day, can also cause tight muscles. Tight hamstrings, for example, could make it more difficult to extend your leg all the way while walking and result in injury when you get up and move.

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What are the types of stretching?

A woman stretching her arms in an overhead stretch.
Credit: Getty Images / ljubaphoto

Not all stretching serves the same purpose.

You may have heard people debate whether you should stretch before or after your workout. There are actually two different types of stretching, dynamic and static, and each has a unique purpose. Most experts recommend doing dynamic stretches before your workout to get your muscles primed, and static stretches afterward, during your cool-down.

If you don’t work out often or you’re just feeling tight, you can try a combination of dynamic and static stretches (dynamic first, then static), or other flexibility-focused activities such as yoga or tai chi.

What is dynamic stretching?

A man doing lunges on a track.
Credit: Getty Images / FluxFactory

Dynamic stretching is great for warming up your muscles.

Dynamic stretching could be considered your warm-up. Instead of slow movements and long holds, you perform moves like walking lunges and leg swings that get multiple muscles doing what they do best. “It’s called dynamic stretching because it incorporates more movements,” Martinez says. “This movement prep allows your brain to communicate with your muscles to be able to really synchronize and prepare for the activity you're going to do, whether it's fast-paced movements or long endurance-based movements.” You’ll also get the blood flowing to your working muscles, which literally warms them up for what’s to come.

What is static stretching?

A man in cobra pose on a yoga mat.
Credit: Getty Images / ljubaphoto

Longer holds allow for more change.

Static stretching is when you touch your toes or do a side bend, and hold it for some length of time—basically, what comes to mind first when you think of "stretching." While you may not want to do these movements cold before your workout, there’s a time and a place for them. “After a workout is really where you want to focus on longer hold, which is static stretching,'' Martinez says.

With strength training, when you push yourself to lift more weight, you see more progress. Similarly, dedicating more time to static stretching allows you to see more of its benefits, such as better athletic performance. “With static [stretches], you're generally looking to hold your stretches for a minimum of 20 seconds, ideally around 20 to 30 seconds,” Martinez says. “And what that allows for is the stimulus to induce change on the muscle. That’s when you see increases in flexibility or sports performance or recovery, whatever that may be.”

Does foam rolling count as stretching?

A woman foam rolling her hamstring.
Credit: Getty Images / microgen

Foam rolling can provide many of the same benefits.

You may be familiar with foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial rolling, or seen others incorporate it into their workout routines. Foam rollers are cylinders made of, yup, foam. When foam rolling, you lay on top of the roller and slowly slide back and forth on it, so the roller moves beneath you and massages your muscles.

Foam rolling is great for athletes and non-exercisers alike. It provides many of the same benefits stretching does, like improving range of motion and flexibility, reducing soreness, and speeding up muscle recovery. You can foam-roll pretty much whenever—while warming up or cooling down before or after your workout, or on more sedentary days when you have a few minutes to unwind. However, the more you roll, the more benefits you’ll see.

If you’re interested in working a foam roller into your routine, we recommend the LuxFit. It’s firm but not overly so, making it great for a deep massage. If you’re new to foam rolling, remember to move slowly. You’ll want to spend 90 to 120 seconds rolling each muscle group, moving about one inch per second and holding at any particularly tense “trigger points.”

How long should you stretch for?

A woman stretching on the floor in front of a laptop.
Credit: Getty Images / RobertoDavid

No matter your activity level, aim for two to three sessions a week.

There aren’t strict guidelines for how long you should stretch, but Martinez says for a half-hour workout, you’ll want to do about 15 minutes of dynamic stretching before your workout and 15 minutes of static stretching after, to keep your muscles limber and get you back to your equilibrium. Aim to stretch every time you work out, or at least two to three times a week if you’re not as avid with your fitness. But if you want to see more of the benefits stretching can provide, you’ll need to make stretching a priority and work it into your life even more. And if you have a particularly tight area, you should stretch every day.

You should feel some slight tension while stretching, but never pain. If you have seriously tight muscles or injuries, you’ll want to work with a certified therapist to develop a regimen.

How to stretch before and after a workout

A woman stretching her hamstrings at the gym
Credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages

Use a combination of dynamic and static stretching on days when you exercise.

Before a workout, Martinez recommends full-body dynamic stretches like lunges and inchworms to get your muscles going. No matter what muscle group you'll be working out, you’ll have to use your core to stabilize yourself, so it’s important to warm up all the muscle groups even if it's "leg day."

After exercising, you should focus more on the muscle group that just got a workout. For example, if you worked out your chest, do plenty of chest-opening stretches when you’re done, and focus on holding them for 20 to 30 seconds each.

Do you need any special equipment to stretch?

A woman lying on her back on two yoga blocks.
Credit: Getty Images / Galina Zhigalova

Sometimes the right equipment can make all the difference.

In short, no, but a few items might be helpful to make stretching easier and get you a deeper stretch. Stretching straps can be wrapped around your feet, legs, or hands to help you get those hard-to-reach spots or to provide support for limbs. For example, lying on your back and pulling one leg toward you while keeping it straight is a great hamstring stretch. If you can’t reach your leg to pull it towards your chest, you can wrap the strap around your leg for leverage. The Original Stretch Out Strap is a tried-and-true reviewer favorite, with a 4.7-star average rating from over 17,000 reviews on Amazon. It has 10 individual loops to stick your feet or hands in, making for a secure grip, and it comes with a booklet to show you how to perform various stretches with the strap.

A yoga block is another useful option, even if you don't have a yoga practice. These cubes of solid foam or cork can help bring the floor closer to your hands in a forward fold, so you can focus more on opening and less on straining. A foam block, like the Gaiam Yoga Essentials Block, is softer if you plan to lay over it (say, for a chest opener), while a cork block, like this option from Manduka, provides more solid surface.

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