Although I rarely miss a workout, I’ve never been very good about ensuring I give my body the proper recovery it needs to bounce back after all my hard work.
Because even though I talk a lot about taking rest days, foam rolling, and not overtraining, mobility and recovery have been some of the hardest habits for me to build (and I know I’m not alone here). After all, recovery is boring. Sitting around with a foam roller for 30 minutes? I’d rather do a workout in half that time any day.
And when it comes to stretching, I’ve been even worse. I’ll tell myself I’ll stretch while watching TV at night, but when attempting to do this the other night I realized the main reason I rarely do it: stretching hurts!
I’m not talking about half-ass, wimpy stretching. I mean real stretching. Getting deep into those muscles so that you feel like you want to scream or cry or throw up or something similar.
Yet more and more, I realize my lack of progress in certain areas of my training has come from my failure to focus on my flexibility—so I’m making a real effort to change that and establish a consistent stretching habit once and for all. And since stretching will keep your muscles healthy and recover faster, keep you from getting injured, and help you from getting injured, I’d urge you to build this habit as well.
Stretches you should be doing regularly
You don’t have to spend 90 minutes in a yoga class multiple times a week in order to keep flexible and healthy. The following stretches can be done in under 15 minutes, and can be easily completed while watching your favorite TV show, listening to a good audiobook, getting inspired by a TED Talk, or whatever.
Ideally, you’ll figure out a good time of day to do them and build it into a routine just as you do your workouts. While the stretches can be done every day, even 2-3 times a week will make a big difference.
Here are 5 stretches you should be doing on a regular basis:
(Update: You need to warm up before stretching! Failing to do so can result in injury, so please don’t avoid it.)
Yeah, I know, unless you’re a former gymnast or crazy yoga person, you can’t do a split. Trust me, I can’t either, although my recent attempt at stretching regularly has helped me get further down than I ever thought possible.
Yet if you’re like most of us, you sit a lot—meaning you have really tight hip flexors and hamstrings. Training for splits will help you work on both of those muscle groups, so splits training is helpful even for us non-gymnasts.
You’ll want to do the following as a series, one after the other, holding each for 30 seconds until moving onto the next one. For best results, repeat the series 2-3 times, at least a few times a week.
Step 1: Hip opener
Start in a lunge position with your left leg in front of you. Squeeze your butt and push through your hips to really open up those hip flexors. Hold for 30 seconds.
Step 2: Hamstring opener
From the lunge position, lean back on your right leg, point your left toes, and lean forward into the stretch. Try and keep your back from rounding while leaning as far into the stretch as possible.
Step 3: Full splits
Get back into your lunge position then slowly slide your front leg in front of you as you slide your back leg straight behind you. Square your hips, then go down as far as you can while keeping your chest upright. If your back knee touches the ground that’s fine as long as it doesn’t hurt. Also, this exercise become easier with socks!
Step 4: Middle splits
Get into a straddle, then slide both legs as far to the side as possible. Flex your knees as you do so and try to keep them pointing upward (rather than forward) while pointing your toes. This one hurts!
Shoulder/upper back stretches
Most people have way tighter shoulders than they even realize—myself included. Regular shoulder stretches just can’t get very deep, but these ones will keep your shoulders nice and flexible (and, therefore, healthy).
Shoulder stretch against an elevated surface
Sit on your heels in front of some sort of elevated surface such as a couch, a bed, or a waist-high mat. With your palms facing down, straighten your arms above your head, leaning them against the surface—then push. Arch your back and push some more. Try your best to relax into the stretch and keep your shoulders down (instead of letting them creep up to your ears). Try holding this stretch for 30-60 seconds, pushing a little further every 5 seconds or so as you sit there.
Keep in mind that the closer you get your chest to the surface with this stretch, the deeper the stretch you’ll get. You can also do this one while in a cobra position for an insanely deep shoulder and back stretch.
Bar shoulder stretch
Find some sort of bar or stick that’s long enough so that you can grab it with both hands slightly wider than hip-width apart. A PVC pipe is ideal, but a broomstick, mop or weighted bar will also work, as will rubber bands.
Grab the bar with both hands, palms facing down, hands about hip-width apart or a little wider. Raise the bar so that it goes over your head. As you hit this top position, push through your shoulders so that you make your arms as long as possible. Hold that position for a second, then lower behind you as far as you can.
If you get stuck somewhere, that’s OK—stay there for a second then return to the starting position. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to move the stick from the starting position at the front of your thighs to the end position at your butt or back of your thighs. Try doing this stretch 5-10 times, focusing on pushing through your shoulders the entire time.
Upper/lower back and chest opener stretches
Unless you do yoga on a regular basis, you probably avoid (consciously or not) back stretches and chest openers. As a result, you may be one of the millions of people who suffer from lower back pain and general back problems. These stretches will help!
Not only will bridges provide a really amazing stretch for your shoulders and back, they’ll also keep your back nice and strong. To get a deep stretch, get into a bridge and then push through your shoulders as much as possible. Try holding this for 10 seconds or so before coming back down, and aim for 5-10 bridges at least a few times a week.
Go here for a full tutorial on how to do bridges.
The cobra stretch (also known as upward dog) is a really nice complement to bridges because it opens up your chest muscles while providing a gentler stretch on your lower back. Lay on your stomach with your hands by your side, then push up so that your chest is up but your hips are still touching or close to the floor. The more you arch your back in this one, the deeper of a stretch you’ll get. Try holding it for 30 seconds or so. It’s also nice to do this one while alternating between bridges.
To get an even deeper cobra stretch, do this against a wall with your chest pushed against a wall while a partner pulls your arms toward your legs. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to grab your feet, but that will take time!
Happy stretching 🙂