If stretching isn’t part of your regular health and fitness routine, you may be missing out. “Stretching is good for everybody and definitely something to do on a regular basis as part of an overall exercise plan. Stretching is a type of exercise that boosts flexibility and mobility by lengthening the muscles, either by extending them or with movement.
What Are the Different Types of Stretching?
There are several different types, and each offers a unique benefit. Some common types of stretching include:
Think gym class, when you used to bend over and reach down toward your toes. For this type of stretching, an outside force (such as a towel, resistance band, gravity, or another person) helps increase the stretch. Another example is a hamstring stretch with a towel or belt, says Kate Galliett, a NASM-certified personal trainer and Functional Anatomy Seminars-certified functional range conditioning mobility specialist based in Price, Utah.
Static stretching involves extending a limb to create a stretch sensation and then holding it there – often for 20 to 45 seconds, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery. While the terms “static stretching” and “passive stretching” are often used interchangeably, there’s a subtle difference, Galliett says. Static and passive stretching are similar in that you’re holding a stretch, but unlike passive stretching, with static stretching you’re in some way supporting yourself in the position of the stretch. For example, if you kneel on the floor and hold a position to stretch out your hip flexor (the muscle in the front of your hip), you’re doing a static stretch. But, “if you lie on your side on a massage table and have a physical therapist pull your leg back to stretch the hip flexor, that would be a passive stretch,” Galliett says.
Active stretching is when you move a limb into a position to stretch a muscle and then hold it there with your own muscule power. For example, you lie on your back and use your leg muscles to lift one straight leg until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, says Galliett, who is also the author of Becoming Unbreakable: How to Build a Body You Love to Live In. This technique can be helpful for people who are recovering from injuries, because it incorporates gentle strength work.
This method involves adding a static muscle contraction (the muscle doesn’t change length) to a static or active stretch, Galliett explains. There’s some force pushing against the muscle you’re stretching. An example is a calf stretch in which you lunge one foot forward, straighten you back leg with your heel pressing down, and push into a wall in front of you with your arms. Typically, you alternate between contracting the muscle for 10 seconds and stretching the muscle for 30 seconds, and repeat for three to six reps. Isometric stretching can be great for people who want to make reasonably rapid advances in flexibility, because it sends more signals from the nervous system that tell the muscles it’s okay to stretch further.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
PNF is similar to isometric stretching, except that the contract-relax scheme might be done for a much shorter time (15-second stretch and seven-second contraction), Galliett says. This stretching technique also includes a contraction of the muscle opposite the muscle being stretched. So, a hamstring stretch would look like this, Galliett says: Lie on your back and have someone lift one leg toward the ceiling until you feel a stretch in the back of your lifted leg. Hold there for 15 to 30 seconds. Contract the hamstring for 7 to 15 seconds, and then contract the quadriceps (the muscle in the front of your thigh) for 7 to 15 seconds. Relax and let your hamstring be stretched a little further. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Contractions are held for half the time of stretches.
You do controlled exercises to move your muscles through their full range of motion, which helps warm you up for a workout and tells your brain to get ready to move. With dynamic stretching, you’re moving to extend the muscles, Galliett says. Walking lunges, leg swings, and torso twists are just a few examples of dynamic stretches.
Unlike the other types, somatic stretching doesn’t require holding a stretch for a set length of time. You release muscular tension through gentle, natural movements, with an emphasis on tuning in to how the muscles feel. You might, for example, let your head hang and pay attention to the sensations that come with it – or arch your back and stretch upon waking.
The Health Benefits of Stretching
What the different types of stretching have in common is that they help lengthen the muscles of the body and keep them (and thus you) mobile, according to ACE.
Some health benefits of stretching are:
- More flexibility
- Improved mobility
- Better range of motion
- Lower injury risk
- Healthy aging
Stretching increases muscle flexibility, which is needed to maintain a healthy range of motion in the joints, according to Harvard Medical School. Flexibility may sound similar to mobility, but they’re different in that flexibility is the ability of the soft tissues (muscles, tendons, ligaments) to stretch without assistance, whereas mobility is the ability of the joint (where two bones connect) to move through its full range of motion, according to the International Sports Sciences Association.
It’s important to work on your mobility and flexibility if you sit a lot during the day, or even if you don’t live a sedentary lifestyle. Even when we are up and about, many of us tend to limit ourselves to a narrow range of motion, relying a lot on certain muscles and not calling on others at all. When we stick to a handful of positions, this puts extra tension on certain muscles and can throw our muscles, bones, and joints out of ideal alignment.
“When our muscles, bones, and joints aren’t in the right place, we have to carry extra tightness in certain areas to accommodate that,” Galliett says. One example is low back tightness.
“A lot of times, the low back can feel really tight because our bodies aren’t in an optimal position to support our skeletal structure: our head is a little forward, maybe our rib cage and pelvis are tipped too far forward, and so all our weight is leaning forward,” Galliett says. Something has to hold you up in that position, and the low back often winds up taking on the brunt of that work, as opposed to dispersing those efforts across your hamstrings, glutes, abdominal muscles, and the rest of your body.
Stretching the soft tissues in the back, legs, hamstrings, and hip flexors can improve joint range of motion in the spine, which helps relieve back pain, according to a review published in June 2016 in the journal Healthcare.
Flexibility also allows for freedom of movement, which is helpful during everyday activities such as bending over to tie your shoes, vacuuming, and lifting groceries. According to NASM, these activities can become more difficult as we age, making flexibility training important for healthy ageing. It may also help you avoid injuries you might sustain from performing an activity you don’t have adequate mobility and flexibility to do safely.
Mobility and flexibility work also prevents injury during exercise and improves your ability to exercise.
Dynamic stretching, for example, is useful for warming up and stretching the muscles you intend to use during exercise. “An easy way to strain your quad muscle is to just run out and kick a soccer ball as hard as you can,” says Williams Roberts, MD, the director of the sports medicine program in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis.
The same can happen if you launch into a full-speed sprint on cold legs. Warming up first with dynamic stretches (such as lunges, squats, or leg or arm circles) helps start to lengthen the muscles gently; so that by the end of your warm-up, your muscles are ready to be engaged to their maximum. (Just remember to stick with dynamic stretching when warming up and save static stretching for cooling down after a workout; overstretching a muscle that hasn’t been warmed up in a static stretch can put it at a similar risk to overuse.)
When’s the Best Time to Stretch?
In its Physical Activity Guidelines for Adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says flexibility is an important part of physical fitness, but doesn’t specify when or how much stretching to do.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) published its latest stretching guidelines in 2021, suggesting at least two to three weekly stretch sessions that target each major muscle group. But daily stretching is safe and most effective, per ACSM.
Some good times to stretch are:
Before working out (but be sure to make it dynamic stretching)
Do dynamic stretches before every workout. Five to 10 minutes should be enough to get you warmed up, Galliett says.
After working out
Slower, more relaxing techniques like passive and static stretching are great for after a workout. These methods lengthen the muscles and connective tissues and help your body return to a balanced state (homeostasis), meaning your body temperature, heart rate, and blood pressure all return to normal, says Crockford, who is also a senior product manager at ACE.
If you’ve been in the same position for a long time
Stretching periodically throughout the day can ease muscle tightness if you tend to sit or stand in the same position — such as if you work in front of a computer for long stints, you’ve been sitting in a car or on an airplane for a while, or if you work a service job and are on your feet for several hours.
Stretching Exercises to Try
Galliett recommends the following stretches to target different areas of your body. Try doing them all for a gentle, full-body mobility workout, or as needed to target specific muscle groups.
Lower Back Stretch
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Bend your knees, hinge forward at the hips, and place your hands on your knees. Your pelvis, back, and neck should be in a neutral position, so that your body forms a straight line from the top of your head to the top of your glutes. Without losing that neutral position, reach your left hand toward the right foot, allowing your left knee to bend and the right knee to straighten so you can shift your hips. Actively reach toward your foot while driving the right hip back and the left hip forward. Pause briefly before returning to the starting position. Repeat on the opposite side. Keep alternating sides for 30 to 60 seconds or 4 to 6 repetitions.
Piriformis and Sciatica Stretch
Start on the floor on hands and knees, with your back parallel to the floor. Place a book or folded blanket under your left knee to elevate it and your left hip slightly. Your hands should be in line with your shoulders and your knees in line with your hips. Gently tuck your pelvis slightly and shift your weight back and to the left (toward the side with the elevated knee). Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth for 5 to 10 counts. You should feel a gentle stretch (the movement is subtle) where the back of your leg meets your glutes on your left side. Return to the starting position and place the book or blanket under the right knee. Repeat.
‘Rag Doll’ Neck Stretch
This is a passive stretch that’s great for relaxation and easing stress. Sit on the floor with the legs extended, knees slightly bent. (Prop yourself up on a pillow or folded blanket if this position is uncomfortable.) Allow your knees and ankles to roll outward so your legs are splayed open and relaxed; back can be gently rounded forward. Bring your chin to your chest and drop your arms to the floor beside you. Gently rotate your head to one side. Relax here and breathe for 5 to 10 counts. Then, rotate your head to the other side and breathe for 5 to 10 counts. You can repeat this as many times as you’d like.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Start on hands and knees on the ground, back parallel to the floor, and place a pillow or folded blanket under your left knee (for cushioning). Your hands should be in line with your shoulders and your knees in line with your hips. Bring your right foot to the outside of your right hand and tuck in your pelvis. If that offers enough of a stretch (you should feel it in the hip crease of the leg on the pillow), stop here, and breathe for 10 seconds. If you’d like a deeper stretch, lift your torso to create a straight line between the top of your head and your left knee. Check that your pelvis is still tucked in before reaching both hands forward. Breathe in through your nose and blow the air out through your mouth. Continue breathing for 5 to 10 counts. Switch sides and repeat.
This one is an example of an isometric stretch. Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the floor. Lift your left leg and cross your left ankle over your right knee, allow your left leg to rest on top of your right thigh, gently drawing your left knee toward you with both hands. You should feel a stretch in your left glute. Sit tall and hold the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds. Then, push your left knee forward while using your hands to resist the movement. Push for 5 seconds and immediately relax. Hold the stretch for another 10 to 15 seconds and see if you can go deeper into the stretch. Push for another 5 seconds and then hold the stretch for a final 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Here’s another isometric stretch. Begin standing in front of a wall at arm’s length from it with your feet hip-width apart. Place both hands flat against the wall. Step the right foot back so it’s straight, with your heel flat on the floor, bending your left knee as needed. Keeping both feet pointed forward, gently press your upper body toward the wall until you feel a stretch in your back calf and heel. Hold for 30 seconds and then begin pushing the ball of your back foot into the ground like you’re stepping on a gas pedal. Build the pressure slowly and continue until it feels like a 5 or 6 out of 10 on the intensity scale. Hold at that intensity for 10 seconds and then slowly relax the foot. Hold the stretch for another 30 seconds and see if you can go deeper into the stretch. Then push your foot into the ground again until you reach an intensity of 5 or 6 and hold for 10 seconds. Relax and hold the stretch for a final 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Hamstring Toe Touch Stretch
Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart for this dynamic stretch. Keeping your left leg straight, kick it forward gently and reach toward it with your opposite hand. Only kick your leg as far as you can control safely; don’t strain to kick as far as possible. While kicking, keep your body upright so it forms a near straight line from the top of your head to the foot that’s still on the floor. You can do 5 to 10 reps on one leg before switching to the other leg, or alternate legs until you’ve completed an equal number of reps on each side.
IT Band Tension-Reliever Stretch
Lie on your back far enough in front of a wall so that you can place your feet flat against the wall about hip-width apart. Your knees should be bent at a 90-degree angle with shins parallel to the floor and thighs parallel to the wall. Place a yoga block, small pillow, or book in between your knees if you need support, and prop your head up on a pillow if needed to avoid neck strain. Let your arms rest on the floor by your sides. Inhale through your nose. On the exhale, roll your low back into the floor and imagine that you’re driving your heels down the wall to tilt the pelvis upward, slightly lifting hips off the ground. Continue driving your heels for 30 to 60 seconds, breathing deeply.