You already know that stretching is important. Keeping your muscles flexible improves mobility, which is one of the key components of fitness. And if you don’t stretch, the muscles can shorten and become tight, which can limit your range of motion and put you at risk for joint pain or a pulled muscle.
But stretching is only beneficial if it’s done correctly. There are a few common stretching mistakes that can lead to injury and inflexibility — the exact opposite of the results you’re looking for. Here are 8 stretching mistakes to avoid so you can improve your flexibility and your workouts.
Mistake #1: You’re Doing the Wrong Type of Stretching
When you hear the words “warm-up stretch,” you may be picturing the static stretches — like toe touches and sit-and-reach stretches — that we all did in P.E. But movement-based stretching is a better way to kick off your workout.
“During a warm-up, you want to do dynamic stretching, which enhances muscle activation and prepares muscles to be powerful through a full range of motion,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S. and Fitness and Nutrition Content Manager for Openfit. Dynamic stretches include lunges, trunk rotations, leg swings, and jumping rope.
For the post-exercise “cooldown” period, you can focus on static stretching to relax the muscles and release tension. “Both types of stretching can help enhance mobility,” Thieme says. “But one excites muscles while the other calms them down.”
Mistake #2: You’re Bouncing While Stretching
Ballistic stretching is when an individual uses momentum from bouncing to force a muscle to stretch past its normal range. But instead of loosening the muscle, this type of rapid stretching movement can actually cause the muscles to tighten — a contraction known as the myotatic reflex or “stretch reflex.” This can lead to injuries like muscle or tendon tears, Thieme says.
Mistake #3: You’re Stretching Injured Muscles
Stretching injured muscles is “a big no-no,” Thieme warns. Muscle strains typically happen when a muscle is stretched beyond its limit, so stretching it further can aggravate the injury. Instead, use the POLICE protocol (protection, optimal loading, ice, compression, and elevation) to help the muscle heal.
Mistake #4: You’re Overstretching
While some discomfort is to be expected, you should never be in pain while stretching. “Overstretching can result in muscle strains or excessive neural tension [stretching of the nerves],” Sudell says. And research suggests that static stretching before a strength workout may actually cause a decrease in performance.
Overstretching can also lead to hypermobility, “which is when a joint is too loose, and thus unstable,” Thieme says. Know your limits when you’re stretching, and don’t force yourself to go beyond them.
Mistake #5: You’re Not Stretching Consistently
It’s going to take more than a few sporadic stretching sessions to get the hamstring flexibility of a ballet dancer. Ideally, you should be stretching your major muscle groups at least 2 to 3 times each week — and be consistent about it. “In order to achieve physical, permanent change, stretching must be consistent for six to eight weeks,” says Sudell.
Mistake #6: You’re Speeding Through Your Stretches
“People often do not stretch for the appropriate duration of time,” explains Sudell. She recommends aiming for 30 seconds or less for a pre-exercise stretch. For post-workout static stretching, aim to hold each stretch for at least 60 seconds.
Mistake #7: You’re Not Doing Sport-Specific Stretches
Sport-specific stretches “can be anything targeted toward movements that a particular athlete needs,” Sudell says. For example, she says, golfers may focus on stretches that improve their spinal rotation and hip mobility, so they can hit the ball with maximal power. Sprinters can warm up with dynamic stretches that simulate running and explosive movements, like walking lunges, butt kicks, and high knees.
Research also shows that static stretches are better suited for athletes who need flexibility (like gymnasts or dancers), while dynamic stretches are especially beneficial for those who need to run or jump (like basketball players or runners).
Mistake #8: You’re Ignoring Your Breathing
Deep, diaphragmatic breathing “can help relax tense muscles, and when paired with stretching, can allow for an even deeper stretch without increasing the risk of injury,” Thieme says.
In addition, “breathing enhances the therapeutic effect” of stretching, Sudell says. Research shows that diaphragmatic breathing can help the body recover after an exhaustive workout. The proper way to breathe during a stretch is to slowly inhale through the nose, hold for a moment, then release the breath through either the mouth or nose, keeping the diaphragm and abdomen soft and relaxed.