You know it’s good to stretch after your workout, but let’s be real: We’ve all been that person who “sneaks” out during the cool-down as if the instructor can’t see us. Or that person who lifts and leaves. Or that person who hops off the elliptical and right to the locker room. We’re just too busy, right?
Turns out, our muscles might disagree. Muscles are best stretched when they are warm, says Jessica Matthews, award-winning fitness instructor and senior advisor for health and fitness education for the American Council on Exercise. That’s why experts advise doing static stretching after, rather than before, exercise.
All you need is five minutes. “Flexibility is such a vital, yet often overlooked, health-related component of fitness,” says Matthews, author of “Stretching to Stay Young.” “Devoting five minutes to stretching post-workout is better than skipping it all together.”
Simply follow these five tips, and you’ll get an effective, efficient stretch in practically no time (or, five minutes):
1. DO MULTI-MUSCLE STRETCHES
Our bodies have more than 600 muscles. The good news is you don’t need to stretch every one of them. Instead, use stretches that target multiple areas of the body at once to maximize your time. For example, a stretch like reverse tabletop (borrowed from yoga) stretches the muscles of the chest and the hip flexors, Matthews says.
2. THINK ABOUT JOINTS, NOT JUST MUSCLES
“Keep in mind key areas of the body that are designed to be mobile,” Matthews says. This includes the ankles, hips, thoracic spine and glenohumeral/shoulder joint. If you aren’t familiar with all of those, simply remember the calves, hip flexors, hamstrings and chest, which not only tend to be tight but also are involved in producing movements at those four key joints. Stretch them, and you’ll move better during exercise and everyday activities.
To enhance muscle relaxation and improve overall range of motion, it is ideal to stretch muscles in various positions, Matthews says. “Stretching across the different planes of motion provides a more functional representation of how the body moves in everyday life,” she explains. So don’t just sit and reach — move your body in all three planes of motion: forward and backward, side-to-side and rotational.
4. HOLD THE STRETCH FOR AT LEAST 15 SECONDS
It’s ideal to hold each stretch for 15–30 seconds, building up to a total of a minute if you can, Matthews says. “When you hold a stretch for at least 15 seconds, the muscle spindle gradually becomes accustomed to the new length, leading to the greatest improvements in flexibility,” she explains.
5. REMEMBER TO BREATHE
Not that you would forget, but breathing leads to a more beneficial stretch. “Studies have shown that when you consciously focus on relaxing the muscles that are specifically being stretched, it can lead to improved range of motion,” Matthews says. She recommends slow, rhythmic breathing when performing static stretches. If you don’t want to count seconds, count your breaths. Five to six slow, controlled breaths is at least 15 seconds, if not longer.
If you have a few extra minutes, by all means do more. “It is most optimal to accumulate 60 seconds per stretch and to perform stretches for all major muscle-tendon groups,” Matthews says. She likes at least 10 minutes of post-workout stretching, when you can convince yourself that you do, indeed, have the time.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT WORKOUT