Before you joined a Little League team or were picked last for dodgeball in gym class, you probably learned the fundamentals of stretching. Which, when you're a kid, mostly amounts to half-heartedly touching your toes a few times before running around like a maniac.
Stretching pre- and post-exercise really does improve physical performance and helps prevent injury... but only if you're doing it right. To help you get the most out of this essential practice, personal trainers shared what makes them wince in the flexibility department, and what you should be doing instead.
Not knowing the difference between static and dynamic stretching
These names aren't so deceptive; static stretching is when you hold a pose for a period of time, like 60 seconds, says Juliet Kaska, an LA-based celebrity trainer. Dynamic stretching is any movement-based stretch that also activates the opposing muscle or muscle group -- like performing high knees while running in place.
Why does it matter? Contrary to what you may remember from gym class, static stretching isn't really a great idea before physical activity, since it doesn't enhance performance.
Stretching as a warm-up
Actually, you should warm up as a warm-up, says Laurenn Cutshaw, VP of marketing & branding and instructor at Yoga Six. “Stretching, especially static stretching (like reaching for your toes), on cold muscles is a recipe for disaster," Cutshaw says. "Do a light warm-up -- walking, jogging, a couple of air squats or calisthenics -- before you stretch, then get into the rest of your workout."
Be sure not to skip out on static stretching after your workout: "Stretching after exercise restores the muscle to its natural, lengthened state," Cutshaw says.
Rounding your back during hamstring stretches
While this classic, touch-your-toes forward fold might be the very first flexibility pose you learned, all too often the hamstring stretch is stripped of its efficiency and reduced to a rounded-back attempt to touch your toes, says Patrick Walsh, fitness manager at Crunch Park Ave in New York City. The goal is to stretch the back of the leg -- not touch your toes (or floor, if you're standing).
Amy Jordan, founder of WundaBar Pilates, suggests trying a standing pose to get a true stretch: place your hands shoulder-width apart on a counter, or back of a tall chair. Step your legs back so you're as close to an "L" shape as possible, with your feet parallel, directly below your hip sockets (about 4 to 6in apart). Actively push your heels into the floor below you, broadening your sit bones (ie., stick your butt out). "You’ll feel a much deeper stretch through the hamstrings than just folding forward," Jordan says.
Not holding your stretch long enough
Even if you "feel the burn," your static stretch isn't effective at elongating the muscle if you don't hold it for at least 15 to 30 seconds, warns Louis Coraggio, founder of Body Architect, trampoLEAN, and personal trainer with Find Your Trainer. Instead of quick holds or fast torso twists, Coraggio recommends paying attention to tighter muscles and holding these stretches for 20-30 seconds longer than usual.
Attempting "the Hurdler"
This uncomfortable position (one leg sprawled straight in front of you, the other tucked under your bum in an awkward turtle-like situation) doesn’t just look weird -- it can put your knee in a compromising position, says Matthew Elm, personal trainer at Crunch Park Ave in New York City. To avoid this unnecessary strain on the knee, Elm recommends lunges instead.
"Start with one knee down on the ground, and your other foot flat on the ground with your knee at a 90-degree angle," Elm says. "Then, shift your hips back, allowing your front leg to straighten, and grab the ankle of the leg with the knee on the floor. Shift your hips forward again and attempt to get your front leg back to a 90-degree angle at the knee."
Extending too far
Just because you can press your wrists to the floor like a circus freak doesn't mean you should. "Over-stretching beyond a normal range of motion causes hypermobility, which can cause ligament and tendon elongation and other imbalances," Coraggio says. "Instead, focus on strengthening muscles that have excessive flexibility."
Shortening your shoulders with a cross-body stretch
This is a stretch Little League coaches just love. But it can actually do more harm than good, says Jacob Boly, certified personal trainer for The Vitamin Shoppe. Every time you drive, eat, sit at a computer, and use your phone -- which is probably a LOT -- you're constantly rounding your shoulders in, leading to tight chest muscles, which can cause internal rotation. For those with internal rotation and a possible rounded upper back (cough, cough, anyone with a desk job), the cross-body shoulder stretch just takes an already-tight muscle and shortens it even more. Instead, Boly suggests a doorway stretch.
"Place your forearm and hand on a wall at 90 degrees parallel with the floor -- preferably on a doorway, or corner," Boly says. "While maintaining a neutral spine, or a normal standing position, lean forward and back to get a stretch -- without facilitating bad posture."
Stretching the wrong muscles
Choosing the best stretches and warm-ups depends on what the main movers are in the activity you’re about to perform, says Dyan Tsiumis, head instructor at SWERVE Fitness. "Think to yourself, 'What muscles are involved?’ and then focus on stretching those," Tsiumis advises.
For example, after a run or cycling session, you’ll want to focus on your lower body, whereas after a long day at your desk job you should stretch to open your hip flexors.
Doing seated spinal twists
Most people attempt this stretch to alleviate lower-back pain, but if you aren’t careful, seated spinal twists can actually aggravate the muscles in your lower back, says Nikki Warren, co-founder of Kaia FIT. "This stretch should only be performed with excellent posture," Warren explains.
Since most people, uh, don’t possess great posture, Warren recommends trying child's pose instead. "This passive stretch allows your lower back to release with zero pressure," Warren says. "Simply spread your knees as wide as possible while keeping your big toes together. Relax your glutes to heels -- place a towel under your hamstrings if you struggle to reach your heels -- and drop your forehead to the earth while walking your hands forward."
Only stretching what feels tight
"The most common stretching mistake I see time and time again is only stretching an area of the body that, 'feels tight,'" says Brooke Sheely, trainer at YG Studios. "For instance, doing a static, seated forward fold to eliminate hamstring tightness."
She suggests focusing on a larger area of your body, like the entire posterior chain. "Oftentimes if your hamstrings are tight, it’s due to muscular imbalances, tightness, and even weakness in your psoas, lower back, and calves," she says. "It’s important to stretch and foam-roll quadriceps as well: focus on the entire leg and posterior chain in stretches such as down dog, pigeon, and double pigeon."
Blindly attempting a scorpion stretch
You've probably attempted this stretch at one point or another, and odds are you did it wrong -- and may have harmed your back in the process. While the scorpion stretch (executed facedown with your arms spread wide, where one leg crosses your body to tap the opposite side) provides length to the anterior portion of the body, the risk to your lower back and spine is greater than the reward the stretch provides, says Maurice Christovale, personal trainer with Find Your Trainer.
Want an alternative? Christovale recommends the "Brettzel stretch" which is still pretzel-like but has fewer moving parts. "YouTube it. It’s a great way to increase thoracic mobility and glute, quad, and abdomen flexibility -- the whole nine yards," Christovale says.