Stretching is the flossing of the exercise world: You know you should do it, but how easy is it to skip? And post-workout stretches are especially easy to bail on—you’ve already put in the time for your workout, so when that’s done, it’s extra tempting to call it a day.
But there are some solid benefits to fitting in some post-workout stretches after your routine, whether you’ve been running, strength training, or doing HIIT. Here’s everything you need to know about why you should stretch after your workout, which stretches to choose, and how you should do it most effectively.
The Benefits of Stretching After a Workout
“One of the big things about stretching after a workout is the idea that you are improving mobility after you’ve already worked the muscle,” Jennifer Morgan, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a sports physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Stretching can increase blood flow, boost oxygen levels, and help deliver nutrients to your body and your muscles, and as well as help remove metabolic waste to help with the recovery process.”
Stretching as a warm-up should focus on dynamic moves, or those that include movement—say, like an inchworm rather than simply touching your toes. Dynamic stretches are also helpful after your workout in your cool-down, says Morgan, since they give you more bang for your buck by working multiple joints and muscles at a time.
But static stretching plays a role in your cool-down too, since it can bring mobility benefits, says Marcia Darbouze, P.T., D.P.T., owner of Just Move Therapy in Florida and co-host of the Disabled Girls Who Lift podcast. Static stretching can increase your range of motion, according to a review of stretching types published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, and because your muscles are already warm from your workout, it’ll feel easier to get that good stretch, says Darbouze.
The Best Stretches for Different Types of Workouts
Post-workout stretches are important regardless of your workout of choice: You want to bring more blood flow to those muscles that you just worked in order to aid that recovery and ward off stiffness, says Morgan.
Thinking about which muscles you used in your workout can help guide your post-workout stretching process. Let’s say you just ran. Stretches that hit your hamstrings (like the inchworm), quads, and hip flexors (the lunge with rotation hits both) are important to include, says Morgan. You’d also want to make sure to stretch your big toe and your calves, says Darbouze.
And yes, you definitely need post-workout stretching when weight training, too, says Darbouze—“Strength athletes tend to be super stiff,” she says.
After a lower-body lifting session, you’d want to hit those same lower-body muscles: hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, and calves. If you noticed any imbalances during your workout—say, you’re having difficulty getting down low enough into a squat on your right side—you’d want to pay extra attention to the side that’s giving you problems, says Darbouze.
As for an upper-body lifting session, it’s important to stretch your wrists, pecs (your chest muscles), lats (back muscles), and traps (the muscles that extend from your upper back to your neck to your shoulders), says Darbouze.
Stretching out your traps is super important for people who strength train, since they often skip training the lower or middle parts of the traps. “That can lead to tight, overbearing upper traps just pulling our body out of whack,” she says. (A simple trap stretch to include would be simply bringing your ear to your shoulder.)
One important note, though: While focusing on areas that feel tight can be helpful in guiding your post-workout cool-down, tightness might not actually be the underlying problem.
“A muscle can be perceived as tight if it’s overcompensating because it lacks the strength to do something,” Morgan says. Hip flexors that feel “tight” no matter how much you stretch them might actually be signaling a lack of core strength, for example, she says. So you’d want to make sure you’re including enough strengthening exercises into your actual workout rather than only trying to stretch out your muscles afterward.
How Long to Stretch For
Ideally, your post-workout stretching session should last roughly the same amount of time as your warm-up—think 5 to 10 minutes, says Morgan.
But one important thing to remember, says Darbouze, is that any kind of post-workout stretching is better than nothing. “You don’t have to roll around the ground for 20 minutes,” she says. “Even if you do just one thing or spend two minutes on it, it’s something.”
As for how long to hold each stretch? If you’re just starting out, 30 seconds should be fine, working your way up to a minute or so the more you get used to it, says Darbouze.
You’ll likely feel some discomfort when you stretch, but you should never feel a pinching or sharp pain. “And when you stop stretching, you should stop feeling anything,” Darbouze says.
“I use the green light-yellow light-red light system with stretching,” says Morgan. “With the green light, you just feel the stretch and there is no pain with it, so you are good to go and keep stretching. With a yellow light, you feel some sort of discomfort in the 1-4 range [on the discomfort scale], and should proceed with caution—you can keep going, but you don’t want it to get any worse. Anything 5 or above is your red light to stop and back off.”
A 5-Move, Post-Workout Stretch Routine
While the best post-workout stretches you choose depend on the kind of workout you completed, the following stretching routine from Morgan is a solid option to try after a full-body strength training routine.
What you need: Just your bodyweight, and an exercise mat to make the moves a little more comfortable.
Directions: Hold each stretch for 30 seconds to 1 minute. For the moves that are unilateral (on one side), do them for that amount of time on each side.
Demoing the moves areCaitlyn Seitz(GIFs 1 and 5), a New York-based group fitness instructor and singer/songwriter;Charlee Atkins(GIFs 2 and 3), C.S.C.S., creator of Le Sweat TV; andTeresa Hui(GIF 4), a native New Yorker who has run over 150 road races.
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