Stretching feels great and increases flexibility when done the right way. But not preparing properly or doing the stretch incorrectly can lead to injuries and inflexibility—the exact opposite of the results you want. Avoid these common mistakes for a safe, pain-free, and effective stretching routine.
1. You bounce
Bouncing at the end of your stretch (when done vigorously enough) can cause the muscle and tendon to tear, says Luga Podesta, MD, sports medicine physician and rehabilitation specialist at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. This “ballistic” stretching triggers a reaction within the muscle that prevents it from relaxing and ends up defeating the purpose of the action. Instead, Dr. Podesta recommends gradually elongating and holding the stretch for 10 to 15 seconds, then release and repeat several times.
2. You’re in the wrong position
If you don’t feel the stretch where you’re expecting to feel it, you may be doing it wrong, says Phil Oliveri, a physical therapist with Rockford Spine Center in Rockford, Illinois. “Poor body positioning can cause you to miss the muscle you’re aiming to stretch. Use a free hand to feel the muscle you are stretching. It should feel tight and then loosen after the stretch.”
3. You stretch an injured muscle
Stretching an injured muscle can make the damage even worse by worsening a tear, says Dr. Podesta. As a general rule, if muscle pain doesn’t go away within several days, it’s a good idea to get it checked by a physician. Once it’s healed, gradually introduce low-intensity stretching according to your doctor’s advice.
4. You stretch without warming up
This is probably the most common stretching mistake: Stretching a cold muscle can cause a tear or rip, says Dr. Podesta. “You need a good warm-up before you stretch, one where you break a sweat.” That’s probably 10 minutes or so, but might be longer for some people. A hot shower or heating pad can substitute in a pinch but these don’t work as well, says Dr. Podesta. That’s because you’re not moving and working the muscle like in a traditional warm-up.
5. You try too hard
Like bouncing, pushing the stretch beyond your ability can cause the muscle to tear. “The muscle tendon complex to the bone can be damaged by contracting the muscle and then pushing,” Dr. Podesta says. You should feel a little bit uncomfortable during a stretch but it should never be painful. If you still feel tight, repeat the stretch several times while staying within your range of motion.