Warm-Up Stretching 101: Best Stretches to Do Before Your Workout

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woman touching toes, stretching

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If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: don’t skip the warm-up stretch before your workout. We know how tempting it is to jump right into your workout. After all, your time is limited, and stretching doesn’t necessarily burn calories, build muscle or produce measurable results. But trainers and athletes alike agree that stretching is an essential part of your gym time to reduce the risk of injury, warm up the muscles before explosive movements and improve range of motion.

Benefits of Stretching Before a Workout

Taking the time to stretch, even if you’re not going to work out, has numerous benefits and it’s not limited to purely physical benefits, either. Stretching mentally prepares your mind for the workout ahead and, even, the day ahead. In fact, studies suggest that spending a few minutes stretching and mindful breathing every day helps to reduce anxiety and stress and alleviates muscle tension caused by chronic anxiety.

The physical benefits include:

  • Improved blood circulation
  • More flexibility allowing your body to move more fluidly
  • Better balance and posture
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Relief from muscle tension and fatigue

For those who are preparing for high-impact movements like sprinting, box jumps and hurdles, stretching minimizes the risk for injury by warming up the muscles. Cold and stiff muscles are more likely to suffer an injury. The flexibility that results from regular stretching allows for a better range of motion. That range of motion allows you to jump higher, run faster and strength train with better form.

How to Warm-Up and Stretch Before a Workout

You probably remember a few stretches from your gym class days and you might even do some type of stretch in the morning as soon as you roll out of bed. That’s a good place to start, but knowing how to warm up and stretch effectively can make all the difference in your workout. The most important thing is to take your time and not rush through the warm-up stretch. Rushing leads to poor form, incorrect breathing technique and potentially pulled or strained muscles. You have to pay attention to your body’s response to the stretching because if you over stretch, you could put painful stress on your muscles.

Start by warming up with a little cardio and walk on the treadmill or bike for about five minutes to raise your body temperature. After you’re finished and your heart rate has risen a bit, stand on a mat and roll your head in circles. Do a few shoulder shrugs. Then warm your body up by doing a series of rotations: arms, hips and torso. Now you’re ready for your first stretch!

While you’re standing on your mat, reach down slowly and go as far as you can to reach your toes. Don’t push past the point of comfort. If you’ve just recently added stretching to your workout routine, you may not be able to stretch beyond your knees or calves, but with repetition, the flexibility will come.

Repeat the touch-your-toes stretch a couple of times. From there, move on to stretch the rest of your muscle groups including hamstrings, IT bands, calves, quads and hip flexors. You should work each muscle group, but don’t spend more than a few minutes on each. We’ll walk you through the key warm-up stretches to incorporate into your regular routine from your shoulders to your legs.

Leg Stretches

Leg stretches are imperative to your overall fitness regimen due to the amount of stress that are placed on the legs during exercise. Whether you cycle, run or hit the squat rack, your legs are under duress throughout most of the workout. Of course, that duress builds muscle, but without proper warm-up, injuries are more likely to occur. Stretching your legs also helps prevent leg cramps which are painful muscle constrictions. Beyond injury prevention, leg stretches make your muscles more flexible and that flexibility leads to a greater range of motion.  

Hamstring Stretches

Hamstring stretches not only help prevent pulled hamstrings, but they also reduce strain on your back muscles since they are connected. Tight hamstrings are often responsible for lower back pain and lower back pain can cause discomfort in many other areas of your body. Whether you run or lift weights, you probably have experienced soreness in your hamstrings a day or two after. Stretching these muscles before and after exercise can keep this from happening.

To stretch the hamstrings, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and slowly reach your hands down and try to touch your toes. Your knees should be slightly bent. Reach as far as you can; you should feel discomfort but not pain. As you reach down past your knees, you should begin to feel your hamstrings stretching. Hold the stretch for a few seconds before releasing and repeating.

Another common hamstring stretch is the hurdler stretch. To do the hurdler stretch, sit down on a mat and tuck one leg in. Extend the other leg out in front of you and reach toward your toes with both hands. Hold the position for 10 to 15 seconds before releasing. Repeat with the other leg.

IT Band Stretches

Your iliotibia or IT band is the tendon that runs down the outer side of your thigh from your hip to your knee. It can be difficult to stretch it, but nevertheless it’s one way to prevent a painful condition known as iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). Stretching is also one of the only ways to treat the syndrome. The seated rotation stretch is one of the best stretches you can do for the IT band. Sit down on a mat and extend your legs in front of you. Bend your left knee and cross it over your right leg. Rotate your body toward the bent left knee and look over your left shoulder. You should feel a stretch. Hold for a few seconds before switching legs. Another effective stretch to work the IT band is the standing ITB stretch. It’s easy to do and can be done anywhere. To do it, stand up straight and cross one leg behind the other leg. Lean toward the other leg, away from the leg that is crossed behind. Lean until you feel the stretch and hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Uncross your legs, release and repeat. Then switch legs.

Calf Stretches

Ask any runner and they’ll tell you that their calves are one of the first things they feel after a long run. That’s because your calves are closely connected to your feet and if you’re not wearing proper shoes for whatever exercise you’re doing, you’re likely to feel it in your calf muscles. During exercise and even walking, your calves serve as stabilizers. Strong calves allow you workout harder and longer, but weak calves can cause accidents. With that said, your calves require a lot of attention, from strength training to stretching. To stretch the calves, stand on something that’s elevated or even a curb. Stand with your heels hanging off the edge and slowly do calf raises and hold the movement while it stretches the muscles. Yogis will be familiar with this movement: downward dog, a foundational yoga movement, which is an excellent exercise for stretching the calf muscles. To get into the downward dog position, get down on all fours with your wrists lined up beneath your shoulders and your knees squared beneath your hips. Transition into a high plank position and then push your hips up and back and hold. Rock back and forth slightly and push to plant your heels on the ground. You will feel your calf muscles stretch.

Quad Stretches

The quad stretch is one of the most intuitive stretches you can do. To stretch your quads, place both feet on the ground. Balancing on one foot, grab your other foot and pull it toward your butt. Your leg should be bent at the knee and you may need to use a wall for balance.

Hip Stretches

Tight hips aren’t just uncomfortable, they can cause extreme pain in your lower back and in your legs. Even if you’re not active, sitting all day also causes hips to tighten. Because your entire body is connected with the hips, it takes on a lot of impact every day. Even if you’re not working out regularly, you should still take time to stretch your hips daily. You may find that it changes the way your entire body feels. The best stretches for your hips include the forward runner’s lunge and the 90/90.

To do the runner’s lunge, get into a high-plank position with your shoulders square with your hands that are planted on the floor. Bring your left foot up and step into a deep lunge with your foot outside of your planted hand. Gently rock back and forth and do circular motions in this position. When finished, bring your left foot back into the plank position and repeat the exercise with the right side.

The other stretch is called the 90/90 stretch. In yoga, this is similar to pigeon pose. Using a mat, sit down and bend one knee in front of you at a 90-degree angle. Your calf should be lined up with your body and your leg should be sitting flat on the mat. Your other leg should be bent at a 90-degree angle behind you. Keep both feet flexed. If you need a deeper stretch, lean forward toward your front leg and bring your forehead to the ground. Hold the position for at least 30 seconds. Switch legs.

Arm Stretches

Arm stretches should be a key component to your exercise routine, especially before and after upper body workouts. The main muscles you want to stretch here are your biceps, your triceps and your forearms.

It can be difficult to target the biceps specifically, but the bicep wall stretch is one of the more effective arm stretches. To do it, find a wall or pole. Place one hand against the wall and slowly turn away from the wall. You can either keep your arm flush to the wall or not. You will feel a pull in your biceps. Adjust the placement of your hand to a higher or lower position on the wall to target different areas of your bicep.

The best way to stretch your triceps is the tricep/shoulder stretch where you raise an arm above your head, bend it at the elbow and gently push down using your other hand. See “Shoulder Stretches” for a complete step-by-step.

Now the forearm stretch. Not only is the forearm stretch the easiest one to do, it’s also the most overlooked. To work the forearms, extend one of your arms directly in front of you. Keep your arm straight and with the other hand, grab your finger and gently pull back. You will feel the pressure in your wrist and your forearm. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds before releasing and repeating.

Shoulder Stretches

You’ve probably been doing this move since elementary gym class and still do it to this day. The cross-body shoulder stretch is one of the most well-known stretches that’s out there. To start, you can either stand up straight or be seated. As the name indicates, you will extend one arm out and over across the opposite side of your body. Using your other arm, grab the extended arm above and below the elbow and pull it closer to your chest. You will feel a stretch in your shoulder. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and then repeat the movement with the other arm. Now you’re ready for the tricep/shoulder stretch. Go back to the arm you started with stretching and raise it over your head. Bending at the elbow, drop your forearm behind your head until your fingers are touching the space between your shoulder blades. Use your other hand to gently push your bent arm down until you feel a stretch in your shoulder and your triceps. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds and then switch arms.

Back Stretches

Let’s face it, if your back is sore or in pain, your entire body is in pain. Your back is literally the connector to the rest of your body and if it’s not up to par, chances are that nothing else is feeling right either. There are a number of back stretches that you can do, but some of the more basic ones target your lower back, upper back and the space between your shoulder blades.

The seated spinal twist is similar to the torso rotation for the IT band. It not only works your back but targets your hips, glutes and IT band. To perform this stretch, sit down and place both legs in front of you. Tuck one leg in, bending at the knee and place your foot to the other side of the still-extended leg. At this point, you can either keep your leg extended or tuck it in. Twist at the spine using your arms to stabilize and deepen the stretch. Repeat on both sides.

The cat-cow stretch is easy to do and gives mobility to your spine. Grab a mat and get on all fours in a tabletop position. Look up and invert your spine, pushing your belly toward the ground. Then tuck your chin in and arch your back toward the ceiling. Slowly oscillate between these two movements while inhaling and exhaling.

Another common back stretch is the backbend. Using a mat, lay on your stomach with your legs extended behind you and your hands planted on the ground directly below your shoulders. Your face should be almost touching the mat. Slowly raise the top half of your body by extending your arms–almost like a push-up. Your legs should remain extended and touching the mat. While doing this movement, keep your leg muscles and glutes active and engaged. Slowly lower your top half back to the mat and repeat the movement for a few minutes. Not only does this movement stretch your back, but it strengthens it, too!

Dynamic Stretching

There are two types of stretching: dynamic and static. As its name suggests, static stretching is working on one muscle for 20 to 30 seconds before moving on to the next. Usually it is done after a workout to wind down and neutralize the muscles. Dynamic stretching is stretching with movement; the movement is aligned with the specific workout or sport that you are playing. For example, hurdlers will use dynamic stretching to slowly rotate their leg over the hurdle, performing the same movement that they will later use during a race. Likewise a quarterback would do a dynamic warm-up with arm circles and by doing throwing motions. A dynamic stretching warm-up gets you ready for whatever exercise you’re about to do so this is the best type of stretch before a workout while static stretching is best for the end of your workout.

Reviews are mixed on whether it’s more important to stretch before your workout or after. But the overall consensus about stretching is that it matters. Adding a stretching routine into your day can make a significant difference in your mental health and your physical health. Start with any of these warm-up stretches and you’ll be well on your way to better workouts. And if you really want to keep your body feeling ready to take on the next workout, try adding foam rolling to your routine to alleviate muscle soreness and increase blood flow.

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