As a personal trainer, I know one of the most dreaded things for gym enthusiasts and newbies alike. It’s not getting stuck at the bottom of a deep squat or hopping onto the treadmill (though those can also be dreaded experiences for sure!). Except for flexibility enthusiasts, stretching is often the most dreaded — and therefore, neglected — part of people’s gym time. So when people
do stretch, they often feel a sense of accomplishment that at least they did it. But what many people don’t know is that you don’t just need to stretch: you need to avoid common stretching mistakes while you’re doing it.
If you’ve ever been into a gym, you’ve seen it (or maybe, if you’re me, you’ve gotten so excited to lift that you’ve done it!) — loaded up the barbell, swung your arms back and forth a few times, and gone for a big lift. Or, you’ve done some butt kicks and maybe a few jumping jacks before diving right into the rest of your workout (again, I’m calling out my Past Self here). Another common one is just jumping on a cardio machine, staying on for five minutes, and calling it a warmup (or maybe that’s… just Past Me?). My best advice? Don’t be Past Me. Because stretching — properly — is a recipe for
preventing injuries and boosting your gym performance in a truly awesome way. Here are 12 way-too-common stretching mistakes, and the best way to avoid them.
Not Warming Up Before Stretching
If you’ve ever tried to go right into a deep stretch without any preparation whatsoever, you probably know the feeling:
ouch. Unless flexibility is your fitness strength, you don’t want to stretch cold muscles. According to the Mayo Clinic, just a few minutes of light activity on a cardio machine of your choice can get your muscles warm enough to stretch safely. But, don’t be tempted to hop right off the treadmill and into your lifting: stretching after your warmup movements decreases your risk of injury by surprising your muscles into unexpected flexibility.
It’s tempting, I know. Spend a few minutes cycling, sweat a bit, skip the stretch, and beat the line to the showers. But, you want to avoid this and make sure you
do spend time actually stretching. Stretching allows you to activate muscles that are probably not specifically warmed up by your short bout of cardio alone: without any stretching, you risk tearing your muscles because of the sudden weight you’ll put on them, whether it’s through running, lifting or both. Stretching can help you avoid this danger.
Not Stretching For Enough Time
Swinging your arms around and calling it a day is not enough to be considered true stretching. Stretching is ideally a full-body experience, and
according to the Cleveland Clinic, each stretch requires a different amount of time. While static stretching should last between 30 and 60 seconds, dynamic stretches come with rep guidelines rather than a timer: each dynamic stretch should be repeated 10-12 times. The Cleveland Clinic also recommends spending at least six to 12 minutes with your pre-workout dynamic stretches, so don’t be shy: lean into it!
Stretching should always be accompanied by breathing. Whether you’re engaging in dynamic stretching or static stretching, you should never forget to breathe.
According to Penn State Extension, breathing (during your workout, too!) ensures that your muscles and your brain are both getting the oxygen they need to function optimally. Additionally, one of the most important parts of a stretch is increasing the flow of oxygen to specific parts of your body: that can’t happen if you’re not breathing! The Penn State Extension recommends “exhaling on exertion” — I phrase it to my clients as “exhale when it gets hard.” But don’t forget to inhale, too: you need to bring in oxygen just as much as you need to expel carbon dioxide.
Stretching Into An Injury
When you’re injured, you should definitely avoid stretching through that injury pain. The exception here is if you’re working with a certified physical therapist who’s working through a specific stretching regimen with you. But on your own, if you have an injury, stretching the pained muscle can often make it worse: that’s because,
according to Harvard Health, if a muscle is strained (for example), it’s already too stretched. That’s why it hurts! So stretching into it — while tempting — often can exacerbate your injury.
Stretching Until It Hurts
I know how frustrating it can be — for myself and for clients — when you see other people in the gym sink down to touch their toes with seemingly no effort at all. But it’s essential to remember that everyone has different histories with their bodies, and your body is doing just fine where it’s at right now. If you want to get more flexible, that’s awesome: but forcing it can actually set your efforts back. Forcing a stretch past the point of slight discomfort and into pain is dangerous:
sharp pain can mean you are over-stretching, which can put you at risk for more injuries, rather than make you more flexible. Flexibility takes years to develop, and although that’s frustrating, try to focus on the small, incremental changes, because those little changes in your body, too, are worth celebrating.
Stretching Only Some Parts Of Your Body
It’s tempting to stretch only the parts of your body that your workout will emphasize. For example, my worst pains in the gym come from when I thoroughly stretch my lower body before a heavy squat day: if I’ve neglected my shoulders and upper back, the pain in my upper body (yes, even during a lower body exercise) can be immense. So while your stretches should be tailored to activate the parts of your body that you will be using most during your workout, there is a fine balance between emphasizing the most needed parts and completely neglecting the rest of your body.
Not Stretching The Most Needed Parts Of Your Body
Stretching before and after a workout isn’t only about the gym: it’s also about how you spend the rest of your days. Sitting all or most of the day, for example, dramatically
locks up your hips and your back. For people like me with plantar fasciitis, the calves are always an important body part to stretch, even if my workout won’t directly involve them. So even if you’re heading in for a simple “arm day,” you want to make sure that you’re always giving extra stretching-love to the parts of your body that could always use a good stretch. It will make you more comfortable during the day and will help improve the safety and enjoyability of your actual workout.
Static Stretching Pre-Workout
Dynamic stretching is pretty much what it sounds like: movements that will stretch your muscles and get them warmed for action. But instead of staying still during the stretch (like with static stretching), the point of dynamic stretching is to be dynamic and flow through your stretch movements. While there is a place in your workout routine static stretching — namely, as part of your cool down — pre-workout dynamic stretching is the way to go if you want to
avoid injuries and improve performance. The reason you want to avoid static stretching before your workout is because static stretching lengthens your muscles, which is dangerous when you’re actually trying to prepare them to contract throughout your workout.
Dynamic Stretching Post-Workout
As you’re cooling down from your workout, you want to avoid what you did to begin your workout: this time, you
do want your muscles to re-lengthen. So, static stretching post-workout is optimal. You want blood to flow back through your taxed muscles to start flushing the toxins that build up with muscular exertion: static stretching can help begin that process, while post-workout dynamic stretching can send signals to your body that it is preparing for even more activity.
Getting Too Complicated, Too Fast
There are stretches out there — many of them — that are sure to partly inspire you and partly make you feel like you should give up now because you will just never be that flexy. But fear not: it’s the little movements that will get your body where you want it to be. Trying to force your body into complicated shapes — even those that other people tell you are “easy” — won’t help until you’re confident mentally and your body is physically ready to go for it. If you’re ever, for example, working with a friend or personal trainer who encourages you to try a complicated stretch that your body doesn’t feel ready for, trying it slowly can be fun: you might impress yourself! But if it doesn’t feel right, you are always allowed to say no, and mark it as something to build up to gradually.
Not Checking In With Your Body
There is never anything embarrassing about needing to stretch, and stretching according to what your body needs, including your level of experience, flexibility, and body shape. Besides, your body can often surprise you: many of my clients who were most scared to try a stretch or lift are the ones who later became most prolific at those same movements. But that’s because they journeyed to those stretches in safe, supportive environments that built their bodies and mental spaces up little-by-little. Checking in with your body to make sure you’re not over-stretching, not neglecting any necessary body part, and making sure that the stretch you’re doing feels helpful rather than hurtful is always essential. And remember that different parts of our own bodies are more flexible than others: your left hamstring, for example, may be much more flexible than your right one.
Checking in with your body and being honest with yourself about where you’re at and where you’d like to be can help your stretches be as efficient and effective as possible. The most important thing to remember as you’re starting or continuing your stretching journey is that there is never any shame in being the least flexible person in the room: often, that least flexible person is me!