If there’s one blessing of working out in the sticky, stifling heat of summer, it’s that your muscles are naturally more limber. And less-tense muscles mean better workouts and lower risk of injury, a win-win if you’re keeping score. But as the temp drops, so does the elasticity of your body’s tissues, and that means now more than ever, you need to make stretching a regular part of your routine if you want to keep raising your fitness game without being sidelined with injuries.
Stretching? If that’s not something you spend a lot of time doing, you’re far from alone. Just fitting in a short workout can be tough enough for most people, let alone finding an extra 15 minutes to tack on a stretching routine, which may be why less than 10% of the U.S. population stretches on a regular basis. Think of stretching as part of your workout, not in addition to it, suggests personal trainer Mathew Forzaglia, NFPT-CPT, founder of Forzag Fitness in New York City. “Dynamic stretching pre-workout will get your body ready for the workload to come,” says Forzaglia. “It preps your body for movement patterns you might be focusing on or just getting the elasticity of the muscle ready for something explosive like jumping or running.”
If your workout involves a lot of lower body movement (running and biking), you’ll want lower body stretches to complement it. Aim to stretch out at least three to four days a week. “A lot of people have created poor habits all their life so doing it once or twice a week isn’t going to make up for all that idle time,” says Forzaglia, who advocates for a daily mini-stretch session. “You need to stay consistent and do at least one stretch every day to keep your body limber and mobile.”
As for when to stretch, it’s less about the time and more about the type: “It is better to do dynamic stretches before a workout to avoid injury and prep the body for the movements to come,” says Forzaglia. On the other hand, “it is better to do static stretches after a workout because it allows the muscles to come back to a relaxed state safely.”
Your New Lower Body Stretching Routine
Try the static stretch routine here after your cardio sessions as part of your cooldown.
Works: Hamstrings, IT band
How to: Stand with your feet together. Cross right foot over left. Bend at the waist and touch the ground with your arms, feeling a stretch in the back of your front leg. Hold for 20 seconds; switch sides.
World’s Greatest Stretch
Works: Glutes, spine, psoas
How to: Start in an extended plank position, arms straight. Step your right foot forward between your hands until you are in a low lunge, both hands still on the floor. Twist your spine and raise your right arm toward the ceiling, allowing your chest and face to follow. Hold 10 seconds; release. Do 5 times on the right, then switch sides and repeat.
Calf Wall Stretch
Works: Calves, ankles
How to: Stand facing a wall, about a foot away. Place hands on wall for support. Lift your right foot forward, so that your heel is close to the base of the wall, and your toes and ball of foot are against the wall. Keeping your right leg straight, gently lean forward, feeling a stretch along your calf. Hold 15 seconds, then switch sides and repeat.
Kneeling Quad Stretch
How to: Start on all fours. Step your right leg through the front, between your hands, right knee bent. Shift weight forward. Lift your left foot off the floor behind you, keeping knee bent and planted. Reach back with your right hand and grab your left foot. Pull in toward your butt. Hold for 20 seconds; switch sides and repeat.
Works: Quadriceps, psoas
How to: Stand in front of your couch, facing away. Lift your right leg behind you, knee bent. Place knee in the crease between the seat and couch back, bottom of your leg (shin) running up the back of the couch. Bend your left (standing leg) and lean back, pressing your hips forward to create a stretch in your quads. Hold 15 seconds, switch sides and repeat.
Works: hips, glutes
How to: Stand with feet slightly wider that hip-width apart. Bend knees and allow your hips to sink back as you lower into a squat. (Stop when quads are parallel to the floor and knees are over feet.) Hold. Start with 30 seconds and add another 30 seconds each week to try and build to 5 minutes of sitting in the bottom of a squat.
Figure Four Stretch
Works: Hips, IT band, glutes
How to: Stand facing a railing or sturdy chair. Place hands on railing. Cross right leg over left, resting your right foot at your left knee so your legs form the shape of the numeral 4. Bend left knee and sink hips back, pulling away from the bar. Hold 20 seconds; switch sides and repeat.
Seated Figure Four
How to: Sit on the floor with legs out in front of you. Bend your right knee and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Place your left hand over the top of your right foot. Gently pull toes downward; hold for 10 seconds, feeling the stretch across the top of your foot and ankle. Next, press foot sideways toward the floor and hold for 10 seconds, then pull up toward the ceiling and hold for 10 seconds, feeling the stretch along the side of your foot and ankle each time. Repeat on opposite side.
Side Lunge Holds
How to: Give your adductors a stretch by standing with feet spaced extra-wide, toes forward. Bend to your right side, keeping left leg straight. Place hands on the floor for support and hold for 20 seconds, feeling the stretch in your groin area. Return to standing; repeat on opposite side.
Remember, the goal of these stretches is to keep your muscles limber and pliable, so you can avoid injury, says Forzaglia, so don’t try to make yourself into a rubber band on your very first attempt. “Start out shallow and begin to work deeper and deeper into the muscle,” he says. “Over time, as your body starts to adapt, you will become more mobile.”