The 5 Rules of Stretching, and Yes, You Do Have to Do It

It's one of the easiest parts of your workout to skip, but stretching is also one of the most important parts: it can help prevent injuries, lessen soreness, fix your posture and release stress. But if your flexibility maxed out around the time your parents sent you to Mommy and Me gymnastics classes, you're probably doing it wrong. That's why we checked in with Stephanie Eris, the national yoga director at Exhale Spa (which has a Yoga Chill series specifically aimed at loosening up your muscles), to find out how to stretch quickly and safely.

Stretch as often as you workout.

If you're hitting the gym three or four times a week, "You should be stretching at least three or four times a week," says Eris. "Our fitness routines should be balanced, always helping us to find the balance between strong and supple." Also, stay active during the day to combat the sedentary tension that comes from sitting at your desk for eight hours. "Do gentle head and shoulder circles, lie on your back, hug your knees into your chest, and make circles with your knees to massage your low back," says Eris. "These simple movements will keep your joints lubricated."

Skip the stretch before your workout.

Recent studies have shown that stretching pre-workout is actually not so great for you. Instead, warm up before your workout and save the stretching for afterwards — and there is a distinct difference between stretching exercises and warmup exercises. "To warm up, you should do something dynamic that will get your blood flowing and connect you to your breath," says Eris. "A few repetitions of cat/cow poses and sun salutations would be a great place to begin your workout. After a workout, static stretches [are] best."

Hold the pose.

A couple of seconds of reaching for your toes will not give you the kind of flexibility you're hoping for. For any actual benefits, Eris says, "Give yourself five breaths (or 30 seconds) minimum to give your body a chance to release into the pose."

Seriously, hold it.

When you're in a stretch, it's tempting to to bounce to loosen up your muscles and stretch a little bit further. That's bad for your body. "If you bounce, the momentum will cause your body to move from the place of least resistance, your ligaments and attachments," explains Eris. It basically negates doing the stretch in the first place. Instead, "Put yourself in a position where you feel sensation, but you can hang out there for a bit," Eris advises. While you're there, "Pause and find your breath. As you inhale, create as much length and space as possible. Exhale, and allow yourself to take up the space you've just created. Lengthen with every inhale, deepen and soften with every exhale."

Don't forget about your hips.

Remember when you were little, and dropping into a split and straddle was an easy way to show off? You can't do that anymore because your hips are too tight. To loosen up, try pigeon pose: "In the forward fold version, pigeon pose stretches the gluteal muscles and inner thighs. When seated upright, it's a deep stretch for the hip flexors in the back leg," explains Eris. "You can deepen that further by bending the back knee and catching your foot with your hand. This will bring the stretch into your quads."

Image: Andres Rodriguez/Fotolia