How To Move Without Pain

How to Stretch a Muscle Correctly

by Meghan Griech, PT, DPT, cert MDT, CKTP

This article takes 6 minutes to read

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Muscle flexibility is important for proper muscle function and optimal strength.

Stretching muscles to maintain flexibility requires consistency and maintenance in order for the muscle to stay at its current length or stretch into more flexibility.

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Sedentary lifestyle, movement habits and prolonged chronic positions cause muscles to shorten, tighten and then limit the range of motion of the joints they have attachments to. Knowing how to stretch muscles correctly is important for overall joint and muscle health. 

Incorrect stretching can lead to muscle strains which could be more detrimental than not stretching at all.

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Here are some key ideas to follow when planning to stretch muscles.

Always warm up. Go for a 5-10 minute walk/light jog or move the joint/muscle you are planning to stretch.  For example if you are planning to stretch your hamstrings, go for a walk before you stretch or sit in a chair and do 20 knee kicks before you stretch your hamstring intentionally. 

Complete Active Stretching Before Workouts Active stretching before activity can help to decrease your risk of injury and potentially boost your athletic performance.  Completing activities such as walking deep lunges, walking hamstring stretch, arm circles or neck circles should be completed before a workout.

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Complete Static Stretching After Workouts Static stretches are when a muscle group is held in a stationary position for a period of time. This type of stretching should be completed after a workout, and held for 20sec and up to a minute. Because no tissue of the body works alone, static stretching of an intended muscle also stretches the connective tissues (ligaments/tendons) as well as  the joint capsule.

These structures support joint movement and stability, therefore, it’s not recommended to stretch those prior to repetitive activity.

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Relax Muscles build tension and tone when used. Stretching muscles requires relaxation of not only the muscles but the body as a whole in order to achieve the full benefits of stretching.

Breathe Similar to relaxing during stretching, breathing is also important to reduce muscle tension that could be potentially holding back flexibility by  reducing tension throughout the body.

For example: Your hamstrings are integral in lumbar movements and providing stability.  Holding your breath can lead to increased tension in your lumbar spine, and if your lumbar spine is tensed, your hamstrings will go into “protective mode” causing them to tense up. , the. This in turn could lead to reducing stretching efforts and inhibiting flexibility gains. 

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Maintain Pain Free Stretching Stretching should cause a “stretching” sensation in the muscles you are targeting. Sensations such as pinching, shooting pain, straining should not  be felt. Stretching should not be aggressive enough to cause a sharp acute pain. 

Stretch and Repeat Muscles take repeated stretching to create and maintain the desired flexibility. During each static stretching session, stretch the muscle and hold it for 20-30secs, back off, giving the muscle time to rest, then repeat the stretch.

Doing a stretching routine like this to each muscle group 3-4 times will improve muscle flexibility whereas 1 long prolonged stretch could be counterproductive causing over stretching and strain on the muscle.

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A regular stretching program should be a part of your daily routine. Stretching muscles helps improve mobility, reduce risk of  muscle injury and improve efficiency of movements.

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