Stretching is nowhere near as fun as lifting heavy, running outside in the fresh air, or finishing a grueling HIIT workout.
But by not stretching, you’re doing your body a disservice. Stretching has many benefits, including improved balance and posture, reduced risk of injury, and less joint pain.
There are a lot of different stretches that target the major muscle groups of the body, and if you’ve never stretched before, you may not know where to begin. If you haven’t been stretching at all lately, you should start with the below movements.
Here are the 10 best stretches for beginners:
- Neck rolls
- Standing chest stretch
- Standing calf stretch
- Standing quad stretch
- Forward fold
- Child’s pose
- Cat cow
- Downward-facing dog
- Butterfly stretch
In this article, I’ll discuss the muscle groups beginners should focus on when stretching, the benefits of stretching, and common mistakes to avoid when starting a stretching routine. I’ll also provide a simple, 10-minute routine that’s ideal for beginners.
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What Stretches Should Beginners Focus On?
When you first begin a stretching routine, it’s best to start by focusing on a few key muscle groups, including:
- Upper and lower back
- Hip flexors
Many of the stretches that target these muscle groups can not only help improve your performance in the gym but can also counteract the effects of sitting all day.
They’re ideal for people who work desk jobs and anyone else who suffers from tight hips, rounded shoulders, and sore lower backs.
Mistakes Beginners Make When Starting A Stretching Routine
Stretching is a low-impact activity, so it’s easy to think that you can just roll out a yoga mat and get started. But there’s an art to perfecting a stretching routine, and that includes avoiding some of the common mistakes below.
Mistake #1: Trying to stretch beyond your limits
Flexibility doesn’t come naturally to most people, and it takes a long time to develop. If you haven’t been stretching at all, you won’t suddenly be able to touch your toes on your first try.
Trying to stretch further than your body is capable of can result in injury. You can strain or sprain a muscle if you try to stretch a muscle that’s not used to the movement.
When you stretch, you never want to get to the point where you feel pain. If you have trouble achieving the full range of motion, you can use yoga straps or blocks for assistance until you become more flexible.
Mistake #2: Doing static stretches to warm up for your workout
Static stretches are stretches that you hold for a specified time. It’s common to hold a stretch for at least 10 to 30 seconds, but you can also hold certain poses for three minutes or longer. This is most often done in yin yoga or restorative yoga.
Static stretching before a workout is a bit of a controversial subject, particularly when it comes to lifting weights, doing sprints, or performing other high-intensity exercises. Many studies have found that static stretching before intense exercise decreases power output and can have a negative effect on strength.
Other studies suggest that static stretching has no negative effect on performing multiple sets of back squats, particularly in females. Static stretching may even be okay as part of a warmup that also includes gentle aerobic activity and dynamic movements.
But until more conclusive evidence comes to light, it’s best to save static stretching for after a workout or on your rest day.
Instead, immediately before your workout, you should do dynamic stretches that move your body through a full range of motion and mimic the exercises you’re about to perform.
You can also use a foam roller before your workout to warm up your muscles, increase circulation, and prime your neuromuscular system for intense activity. There are conflicting reports on whether or not foam rolling has positive effects on performance, but it can help reduce fatigue during and after your workout.
Mistake #3: Bouncing when you stretch
There’s a difference between doing dynamic stretches and bouncing as you stretch. When you do a dynamic stretch, you don’t force your body into uncomfortable positions. But when you bounce during a stretch, you use momentum to push your body beyond its normal range of motion. This is also called ballistic stretching.
It’s not uncommon for certain types of athletes to do ballistic stretches, but it’s not recommended for beginners. Ballistic stretching can put excess pressure on your muscles and connective tissues because you’re not allowing your body to get accustomed to the movement.
Furthermore, if a certain part of your body isn’t ready to be stretched too far, other areas of your body can overcompensate, and you can develop muscular imbalances.
It’s okay to move deeper into a pose as your body loosens up while you’re stretching, especially if you’re doing yin yoga or restorative yoga and holding poses for several minutes. But you should always move slowly, and if you feel any pain, you should ease up a bit.
Mistake #4: Stretching when your muscles are cold
This isn’t referring to temperature — this means trying to stretch when you haven’t moved at all for a long time, such as after a night of sleep or after a long flight.
Even though stretching is a low-impact activity, you need to prepare your body for it just like you would before doing squats or going out for a run. Walking around for a few minutes first to get your blood pumping will prime your body for stretching and make your muscles more pliable.
Mistake #5: Not stretching all of your muscle groups equally
You can certainly focus on one area of your body that’s tighter or more sore on any given day, but you shouldn’t fall into the habit of only targeting one muscle group every time you stretch.
You should also make sure you’re stretching each side of your body equally. So if you do a standing quad stretch on your right leg for 30 seconds, you should do the same on the left leg. This will help to prevent imbalances, and it will also reduce the risk of injury on one side of your body when working out or performing daily activities.
Mistake #6: Forgetting to breathe
Holding your breath when you stretch prevents your muscles from receiving enough oxygenated blood. This can lead to a buildup of lactic acid and cause your muscles to fatigue much faster. Not breathing properly also prevents your muscles from relaxing, and when they’re in a constant state of contraction, they’re more likely to get injured.
While you’re stretching, remember to take deep breaths, breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. A good rule of thumb is to inhale before you begin a pose and exhale as you lean into it. You should then continue to inhale and exhale as you hold the stretch so your muscles can fully relax.
Mistake #7: Not stretching often enough
Stretching doesn’t produce immediate results, and it can be difficult to work on something for a long time and feel like you’re not making any progress. But improving your flexibility takes weeks, if not months, so it’s important to follow a stretching routine several times per week.
If you’re not used to stretching, you can become accustomed to feeling stiff or sore on a regular basis. But when you stretch regularly and then stop all of a sudden, you’ll quickly realize how bad your body feels when you don’t keep up with it. Fortunately, stretching is an activity you can do anywhere without any equipment, so there’s really no excuse for you not to do it.
9 Stretches For Beginners
The stretches below are all simple to perform and can be done anywhere. Many of them also target more than one area of the body. If you only have a couple of minutes, you can pick one or two movements from this list to stretch multiple muscle groups at one time.
1. Neck rolls
This is a more dynamic movement, but it helps loosen any tension you may be holding in your upper body. You can do this in a seated or standing position.
- Whether you’re seated or standing, keep your head straight and your eyes forward.
- Slowly drop your right or left ear to your shoulder.
- Roll your head back so you’re staring up at the ceiling.
- Roll your head to the opposite side of the one you started on.
- Following the same pattern, drop your chin to your chest.
- Continue the same circular motion for as long as you desire.
2. Standing chest stretch
This stretch targets the pecs. It’s beneficial for anyone who has rounded shoulders from sitting at a desk all day or doing too many bench presses but not enough upper back exercises.
- Stand with your toes against a wall and lift one of your arms up so it’s slightly above horizontal. Place your palm on the wall.
- Turn your torso towards the opposite side of the hand that’s on the wall.
- Keep your shoulder down and back to feel the stretch in your chest.
- When you switch sides, hold the pose on the opposite side for an equal amount of time.
3. Standing calf stretch
Your calves can become incredibly tight throughout the day, especially if you sit for long periods of time, wear high heels, walk, or run a lot. The standing calf stretch helps relieve pain and tightness in the lower leg, and it also helps relieve symptoms of Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.
- Put your hands on a wall, the back of a sturdy chair, or a high countertop.
- Take a long step backward with one leg, keeping your toes pointed straight.
- Press your heel into the floor and lean into the wall (or whatever your hands or holding onto) until you feel a stretch in your calf. Avoid rounding your shoulders and back.
- Once you’re ready to switch sides, repeat on the opposite leg, holding the stretch for the same amount of time.
4. Standing quad stretch
This is one of the most basic stretches you can do to target your quads, but it’s highly effective and easy to perform.
- Stand with your feet close together and your knees touching. Hold onto a chair, railing, or another stable surface if you need to.
- Bend your right or left leg, bringing your heel towards your buttocks.
- Grab your ankle or the top of your foot with the hand on the same side. Keep your knees touching; avoid pulling your leg too far behind you.
- Release your leg after a few seconds and repeat on the opposite leg.
5. Forward fold
The forward fold is a fancy way of saying, “touch your toes,” but experienced yogis will tell you that this movement involves much more than that.
Even so, this is an excellent stretch that targets your hamstrings and lower back — and yes, you likely will be able to touch your toes if you practice it often enough.
When doing this stretch, it’s imperative that you don’t move too quickly and only go as far as your body will allow. The forward fold is a good stretch for beginners, but it can also lead to injury if you’re not careful.
- Stand with your feet about six inches apart, a slight bend in their knees, and your hands at your sides.
- Take a deep breath in, then exhale and slowly hinge forward. Aim to touch your torso to your thighs, but don’t push your body to the point where you feel pain.
- While you’re holding the pose, you can either keep your hands on the floor or your shins or hold onto your elbows.
- Keep your head and neck neutral. It may help to keep your gaze focused on your toes.
6. Child’s pose
This pose stretches the core, shoulders, glutes, hips, and upper back, so you can alleviate tension in multiple muscle groups at the same time.
- Kneel on the floor with your toes touching and spread your knees as wide as you can.
- Take a deep breath in, then exhale and lower your torso in between your knees. Stretch your arms out in front of you and press your palms into the floor.
- If you’re able to, you can rest your forehead on the ground. If that’s too difficult, you can rest your head on a pillow, folded blanket, or yoga block.
7. Cat cow
Cat cow is another dynamic movement, but it’s a gentle and effective way to stretch your lower back.
- Start on your hands and knees with your knees underneath your hips and your wrists stacked under your shoulders. Keep your toes curled underneath you and your gaze down and forward.
- Inhale and arch your back while pushing your belly towards the floor and lifting your head. This is the “cow” position.
- Hold for a second, then exhale and round your back up to the ceiling. Tuck your chin to your chest and tuck your tailbone in. This is the “cat” position because it resembles a cat arching its back when it’s afraid.
- Continue moving back and forth between cat and cow, keeping your movements slow and controlled.
8. Downward-facing dog
Downward-facing dog is probably the most recognizable stretch because it’s a common movement in yoga routines.
Like the child’s pose, downward-facing dog targets multiple muscle groups, making it a good stretch for when you’re short on time. You should feel it in your shoulders, hamstrings, and calves.
- Start on your hands and knees with your knees slightly behind your hips and your hands on the floor about shoulder-width apart.
- Spread your fingers, push your palms down into the floor, and tuck your toes.
- Take a deep breath in, then exhale as you lift your knees and straighten your legs.
- If you can’t straighten your legs all the way, you can keep your legs bent slightly. Just be sure not to round your back.
- Remember to continue breathing as you hold the pose. When you’re ready to come out of it, take in one last breath, then slowly lower your knees back to the floor as you exhale.
9. Butterfly stretch
The butterfly stretch is fantastic for loosening up your hips after you’ve been sitting in a chair for a long time.
- Sit on the floor and bring the soles of your feet together.
- Bring your heels as close to your body as possible.
- Grab your ankles and gently push down on your knees with your elbows.
- You should aim to push your knees all the way down to the floor, but if that’s too much, stop as soon as you feel a deep stretch in your groin area.
- If it’s already easy for you to get your knees to the floor, you can deepen the stretch by leaning forward, keeping your back flat and avoiding any bouncing.
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Sample Stretching Routine For Beginners (10 Minutes)
This sample program combines all of the stretches above into a quick, easy-to-follow routine. If you have more time, you can repeat it a second or third time through.
You’ll notice that most of the static movements should be held for at least 30 seconds. If you can only hold a pose for 15 or 20 seconds at a time, that’s okay. Release the stretch when you need to, relax for a few seconds, then return to the pose until you’ve reached a total of 30 seconds.
For best results, you should aim to do this routine two to four days per week.
- Neck rolls: slowly roll your neck for 30 to 60 seconds to loosen up your upper body
- Standing chest stretch: hold the pose for 30 seconds on each side
- Standing calf stretch: stretch each calf for 20 to 30 seconds
- Standing quad stretch: hold the pose on one side for 30 seconds, then repeat with the other leg
- Forward fold: hold the pose for up to 60 seconds, releasing as necessary if you can’t stay in the position that long
- Child’s pose: hold for 60 seconds
- Cat cow: move between the cat and cow positions for 30 to 60 seconds
- Downward-facing dog: hold for 60 seconds
- Butterfly stretch: hold for 60 seconds
Results You Can Expect From Stretching
As I mentioned earlier, stretching has a lot of benefits. It takes a long time to improve your flexibility, but if you stick with it, you’ll notice physical, mental, and emotional changes in your body. Below are some of the results you can expect from following a consistent stretching routine.
1. Improved posture
If you don’t stretch, your muscles remain in a constant state of contraction, which causes them to shorten and become stiff and sore.
Stretching regularly relieves tension and prevents your muscles from getting tight. This allows your body to remain in proper alignment, which prevents your shoulders from rounding and makes it easier for you to stand up straight.
2. Less joint and back pain
Tight muscles put a strain on your joints and lower back. In fact, when your knees, hips, or back are sore, it’s often due to tightness in the surrounding areas instead of an issue with the muscle or joint itself.
Stretching increases blood flow to different areas of the body, which helps alleviate pain and tension.
3. Reduced risk of injury
When your muscles, joints, and connective tissues are tight, they become more prone to strains and sprains. Regular stretching can help prevent these types of injuries by keeping your connective tissues supple.
It’s worth noting that not all research supports stretching as an effective injury prevention method, especially for runners, bicyclists, and swimmers. However, some studies show that stretching can prevent injuries in athletes who participate in power sports such as football or soccer.
This is because these sports include a lot of bouncing and jumping, which involves a phenomenon called the stretch-shortening cycle. Essentially, this means that the muscles become elongated and then immediately shorten again, as is the case when you’re pushing off one of your feet to kick a soccer ball or suddenly accelerating your legs during a sprint.
Cycling, long-distance running, and swimming don’t require as much power output as sprinting and jumping do. As such, researchers believe that stretching isn’t as useful in preventing injuries in athletes who participate in low-impact sports.
Even so, there aren’t a lot of downsides to stretching regularly, so it’s still a beneficial activity to add to your fitness routine.
4. Better performance in the gym
Having better range of motion makes it easier for you to perform certain movements in the gym.
For example, having good hip and ankle mobility allows you to get into the proper squat position. If you’re a CrossFitter or Olympic weightlifter, having good shoulder mobility makes snatches and overhead squats easier.
5. Increased range of motion
Stretching helps your body become more limber by mobilizing and lengthening your connective tissues. This allows your joints and muscles to move more freely and makes it easier for them to function properly.
The example I mentioned above of being able to get into a proper squat position when you have good hip and ankle mobility is a strong indicator of this. But an increased range of motion also makes everyday activities easier — even ones as simple as bending over to tie your shoes.
6. Improved balance and coordination and reduced risk of falling
Stretching is an excellent way to enhance your mind-body connection, which has a positive effect on your balance and coordination. This is especially important for the elderly since lower body flexibility decreases with age and makes older individuals more prone to falling.
A study published in 2016 suggests that regular stretching increases the length of time elderly patients can balance on one leg with their eyes closed. One can therefore presume that by improving your balance, you reduce your likelihood of falling when performing daily activities.
7. Reduced anxiety
Stretching forces you to slow down and concentrate on your breathing and puts your body into a meditative state. This can help reduce anxiety symptoms such as increased heart rate and feelings of nervousness.
Stretching also helps your body feel better, and feeling good physically can help you feel good emotionally and mentally as well.
Despite its many benefits, many people avoid stretching for various reasons. But by not stretching, you’re preventing your joints and muscles from being able to function properly. You can also make your body more prone to injury.
Improving flexibility can take months, and it’s easy to get discouraged if you feel like you’re not getting anywhere. Fortunately, you don’t need to spend hours a day stretching to see results. Stretching for just 10 minutes a few days per week is enough to realize its benefits.