How to Stretch Your Whole Body (And Why It’s So Important), According to Physical Therapists
Learn why it’s so important to stretch from head to toe and what the best stretches are to prevent and manage joint pain.
When you think about exercise, you may think about two things: cardio and strength training. But there’s another crucial component to a well-rounded workout routine that you may be overlooking: stretching.
Stretching offers a whole host of fitness benefits. “It can definitely help with mobility and flexibility, and increase blood flow to your muscles to prepare them for activity,” says Steven Goostree, PT, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. Plus, it involves gentle movements that combat joint aches and pains, and help you get more active — which further helps joint pain.
What’s interesting, though: The way we think about stretching — and how you use it as a part of an exercise routine — has evolved dramatically in just a few years, says Dr. Goostree. “It’s very different from what you were told when you played sports as a teenager, or even from when I went to physical therapy school,” he adds. Here’s what research shows, and tips on how to stretch your whole body.
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Steven Goostree, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Types of Stretching: Static vs. Dynamic
There are two main types of stretches: static and dynamic.
This is what you probably think of when you hear the word stretching. In a static stretch, you extend the targeted muscle to its maximal point, and hold it for about 30 seconds. A quad stretch, butterfly stretch, and toe touches are all examples. There are a few ways to do a static stretch.
An active static stretch means you yourself are holding the stretch. For example, reaching down to touch your toes to stretch your hamstrings does not require an external force, making it an active static stretch.
A passive static stretch involves someone or something, like a resistance band, that increases the force and intensity of the stretch. For example, you could lie on the ground with your leg extended in the air while someone pushes your leg toward you to stretch your hamstring.
Static stretches used to be routinely done before playing sports or doing a workout, but the advice is more nuanced now. While static stretching can certainly be a part of a healthy warmup, you may not want to use just static stretching to warm up. Static stretching is more a matter of lengthening muscle fibers, which really makes it more appropriate for a cool down after exercise to help prevent injury and reduce post-workout muscle soreness.
While research shows that static stretching has the potential to improve muscle strength and power, other research actually shows that static stretching before a workout may actually decrease peak power and force, Dr. Goostree explains. A review of over 100 studies found that static stretches of at least 90 seconds reduced strength in the stretched muscles by almost 5.5%. The result? “You might have been better off not stretching at all,” explains Dr. Goostree.
However, it’s important to remember that everyone is different and this does not mean that static stretching is harmful. If it feels good for you, it’s a great component to include in a warm-up routine, but you may not want it to be the only component of your warmup. Rather, it might help to incorporate dynamic stretching, too.
This is a movement-based type of stretching. It loosens your joints and moves them through their full range of motion in order to engage several different muscle groups. Movements like downward dog to planks or walking lunges with twists are common examples.
Dynamic stretching also increases blood flow to the area, which helps decrease muscle stiffness. The purpose is to mimic the movements you’ll perform in your upcoming activity and give your body a chance to practice at a slower pace in a low-stakes environment, helping to reduce the chances of injury during a workout. All of this will make it easier for you to power through your workout, says Dr. Goostree. For example, if you’re about to go on a four-mile run, a good dynamic stretch would be walking kicks, where “you take on a Frankenstein-like walk, kicking your legs out with your arms extended in front of you,” he says. It’s a good idea to do dynamic stretches for five to 10 minutes before any exercise.
Benefits of Stretching
Does stretching tone your body? Yes. Does it help release tension in your body, reducing and preventing joint pain? You bet it does. But here are some other reasons why stretching — both static and dynamic — is important:
It helps keep you flexible. As a result, your joints will have better range of motion, says Dr. Goostree. This may mean that you have better performance in physical activities, and it decreases your risk of injuries.
It can help you recover from injury. “If someone’s had an injury or major surgery, like a knee replacement, then nearby muscles such as the hamstrings or calves can tighten up. It’s basically like a protective mechanism,” says Dr. Goostree. In these cases, stretches can be really helpful. A physical therapist can help with this. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
It may improve athletic performance. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Sports and Science Medicine found that dynamic stretching for just 30 seconds increases muscle strength. Another 2019 study published in the same journal found that dynamic stretching improved range of motion, which can help you perform the activities you enjoy, whether that’s walking, biking, or playing pickleball.
It can help you feel relaxed. Stretching helps your muscles relax and release tension that often builds up from stress during the day. If you pair your stretches with deep, slow breathing, you may find that it helps you reach your inner Zen, says Dr. Goostree.
Full-Body Stretching Exercise Routine
The following static and dynamic exercises recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists are commonly used to prevent and treat all kinds of musculoskeletal pain.
Start by doing three repetitions of these stretches on each side for 20 to 30 seconds
Start with eight to 10 reps of all of these dynamic stretches, for three to five seconds each
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
How to Stretch Like a Pro
The following tips may help your stretching routine flow better:
Focus on your major muscles. Think: your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck, and shoulders. This will help you get at the root of your pain and discomfort.
Make sure you stretch both sides. Different levels of flexibility on different sides of the body can make you more at risk of injury, points out Dr. Goostree.
Don’t bounce. Rather, just lean into the stretch as far as you can and hold it. “We used to think bouncing, or pulsing, into a stretch helped deepen the stretch, but we now know that this can make muscle tightness more difficult to overcome,” says Dr. Goostree.
Don’t push through unacceptable levels of pain. While it’s okay to nudge into your pain, Jane Fonda’s “no pain, no gain” mantra doesn’t really apply here. “If it really hurts, it usually means you’ve gone too far,” says Dr. Goostree. If that happens, ease back or stop entirely to reset yourself.
Be activity specific. You want your stretches to mimic the activity you’re about to do. So if you’re going for a run, you’re better off stretching your hamstrings than your shoulders.
Stick with it. Like anything else in life, the more you stretch and the more consistently you do it, the more likely you are to see results. Try to incorporate dynamic or static stretches into your daily routine two to three times a week, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
Try movement-based stretching. Gentle movements like tai chi or yoga have been shown to enhance flexibility and can be a great component of a stretching routine.
PT Tip: You Might Need to Strengthen, Not Stretch
“I’ve had dozens of patients come in and tell me that stretching a tight muscle has actually made it worse,” says Dr. Goostree. “But when I do an assessment, I find that their muscles aren’t actually tight — they’re just not quite strong enough.”
Oftentimes, strengthening and loading the muscles causes the sensation that you’re tight to go away, and your pain and discomfort starts to improve, Dr. Goostree adds. “This might mean it’s best for you to focus on some strengthening exercises.” Another option is to explore activities like yoga and tai chi, where you hold poses and stretches that strengthen your body while you stretch.
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This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
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Edwards, M. (2012, November 19). Types of Stretching. American Council on Exercise. https://www.acefitness.org/fitness-certifications/ace-answers/exam-preparation-blog/2966/types-of-stretching/
Simic, L., Sarabon, N., & Markovic, G. (2012). Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(2), 131–148. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0838.2012.01444.x
Arntz, F., Markov, A., Behm, D. G., Behrens, M., Negra, Y., Nakamura, M., Moran, J., & Chaabene, H. (2023). Chronic Effects of Static Stretching Exercises on Muscle Strength and Power in Healthy Individuals Across the Lifespan: A Systematic Review with Multi-level Meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 53, 723-745. doi:10.1007/s40279-022-01806-9
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Stretching: Focus on Flexibility. (2022, February 12). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/stretching/art-20047931