Stretching seems to frequently fall in and out of favor in the fitness world. Much of the discourse surrounding stretching as a viable — or wasteful, depending on who you ask — practice comes from research that is hastily or altogether incorrectly interpreted.
That said, stretching has maintained itself as a benchmark practice among recreational yogis and professional weightlifters alike for a reason. When utilized correctly, it can be incredibly effective for preventing injuries or recovering from strenuous training.
However, just like figuring out how many sets or reps to do, or determining what the best biceps exercise is, navigating all the information about active stretching that’s out there can be more than a little frustrating. We’re going to pull back the curtain and illustrate some of the best active stretches for maximizing your recovery and performance both in and out of the gym.
Best Active Stretches
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Best Active Stretches
Whether it’s buying a barbell, committing to a new program, or trying to limber up before a one-rep-max attempt, having the right tool for the job is half the battle. These are some of our picks for active stretches that get you in fighting shape.
The half-kneeling hip flexor stretch is fantastic for alleviating pain and pinching while also priming you for better glute engagement and trunk posture.
Benefits of the Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor
- Can be performed anywhere in the gym or at home.
- Quickly alleviates the pinching sensation in the front of the hip.
- Can be performed conveniently between sets of squats or deadlifts.
How to Do the Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor
Place a pad on the floor or find a soft surface to kneel on. From here, “square” your hips so they’re facing forward with your kneeling shin pointed directly behind you. Set your ribs by exhaling completely and compressing your abdomen as though you were bracing to take a punch.
Squeeze the glute of the kneeling leg with increasing force until you feel relief in the front of your hip. If you don’t feel anything, double-check and make sure your pelvis is posteriorly tilted — “tuck your hips” and don’t arch your lower back at all.
If you find that your strict or push presses end up looking more like an incline bench press, the culprit may be inadequate shoulder extension — an inability to raise the arm until it is aligned with the ears.
A common compensation for poor shoulder extension is to flare the ribs and arch the back to artificially point the arm vertically. This stretch specifically targets that compensation to improve your pressing power.
Benefits of the Quadruped Overhead Shoulder
- Can be performed with one or both arms depending on your needs.
- Effectively stretches out the muscles and posture required for a good front squat.
How to Do the Quadruped Overhead Shoulder
Take a full kneeling position with a bench roughly a foot or two in front of you. Turn one arm over so your palm is facing forward, lift it in front of you and set the elbow on the bench. Place your free hand on the floor and set your ribcage by exhaling fully and tucking your pelvis. Lean forward slowly until you feel a strong pull in the lats and upper back. The goal is to end up with your torso parallel to the floor, but don’t force it.
Once you can get your torso parallel to the floor, attempt to lift your elbow off the bench slightly and hold it for a short period time (three to five seconds). Like in the hip flexor stretch, try to avoid tilting your torso to either side. This stretch can also be performed with both arms at once while holding a light implement like a PVC pipe.
Most of us spend a good deal of our days sitting down, which isn’t conducive to performing well in the gym.
Benefits of the Spider-Man With Reach
- Provides a stretch for both the upper and lower body simultaneously.
- Can be performed easily between sets of other movements or as part of a comprehensive warm-up.
How to Do the Spider-Man With Reach
Assume an exaggerated half-kneeling position with the back hip extended as much as possible, and the corresponding arm planted firmly on the floor. Take the arm opposite your back leg (if your right knee is on the floor, use your left arm) and slowly twist to reach upward towards the ceiling. Allow your trunk to rotate as needed, but try to keep the hips somewhat straight.
Exhale as you rotate your thoracic spine and actively reach your raised hand away from your planted hand. Hold for several full breaths before reversing and repeating as needed.
If you’re saddled with a desk job or spend a lot of time staring at your laptop or phone screen, neck pain after a long day might be all too familiar. Even though we don’t do much heavy lifting with the neck itself, aches and pains can be distracting at best when you’re trying to focus on training.
A neck stretch like the Upper Trap/Scalene stretch can help alleviate tension in the traps and cervical spine after a long day at work, allowing you to focus on getting the most out of your workout.
Benefits of the Upper Trap/Scalene
- Hand pressure allows for precise, delicate application of additional force as needed.
- Good for relieving neck pain commonly associated with forward head posture from too much screen time.
How to Do the Upper Trap/Scalene
Place the arm of the side you’ll be stretching behind your back to fix the shoulder in place. Tilt your head laterally away from your fixed shoulder by actively contracting the sternocleidomastoid muscle — think about pinching an apple between your shoulder and the side of your head. Once you’ve hit your end range of motion, place your free hand on the side of your head. Alternate between applying mild additional pressure and actively — but gently — pushing back against your hand.
Perform several repetitions before switching sides. This stretch also works by tilting the head forward and tucking the chin. Pay special attention to balanced alternation between using your free hand to increase the stretch and pushing back against it. Performing both is key for getting the most value out of this stretch.
Even if you don’t have a job that involves a lot of sitting time, taut or weak hamstrings can still inhibit performance in the gym.
You can’t perform a picture-perfect hip hinge if the back of your leg is locked up, so having an effective hamstring stretch in your arsenal is crucial.
Benefits of the Supine Assisted Hamstring Stretch
- Provides a safe way to stretch the hamstrings from the floor if injured.
- Unilateral performance allows you to focus the stretch on one leg at a time if a mobility imbalance is present.
How to Do the Supine Assisted Hamstring Stretch
Lie on your back with legs extended. Use your core and hip flexors to actively lift the target leg as high as possible while allowing your knee to bend somewhat. Stop when your thigh is perpendicular to the floor, or when you start to feel your pelvis tuck or rotate.
From this position, grasp the back of your knee lightly with one or both hands — do not fully rest the weight of your leg in your hands. From here, actively begin to squeeze the quadriceps to straighten your leg. Continue until you feel a noticeable pull in the hamstrings or your knee locks out fully. Hold your end position for several sections, contracting the quads the entire time, before lowering and repeating with the opposite leg.
Types of Stretching
Before we get into the benefits of stretching, we need to differentiate active stretching from passive or dynamic stretching. After all, you can’t understand the “why” if you don’t first know the “what.”
Active stretching refers to a stretch wherein one muscle (the agonist) contracts as the target muscle (the antagonist) lengthens. This process is called “reciprocal inhibition,” and it is the core mechanism behind the efficacy of active stretches.
Conversely, passive stretching is exactly as it sounds — the target muscle is lengthened via an external force, without the assistance of another muscle or muscle group (think gravity in certain yoga poses or a band-assisted hamstring stretch).
A dynamic stretch incorporates motion throughout the stretch instead of a pure isometric hold. Dynamic stretches are commonly specific to a given sport or activity with the goal of warming the athlete up for the exact task they’re about to perform.
Benefits of Active Stretching
While all of the selections in this article are fantastic for their specific muscle groups or ranges of motion, stretching — particularly active stretches and certain dynamic stretches, depending on your training — offers a litany of benefits that more than justify its presence in any well-designed training plan.
While it may be obvious at a glance, it does warrant saying that a proper active stretch can improve soft-tissue flexibility in the target muscle.
While some passive stretches are notorious for only being temporarily effective, active stretching goes one step further by also strengthening the antagonistic muscles. This additional stimulus helps you retain the increased flexibility provided by the stretch even after you leave the gym. (1)
Literature suggests that proper active stretching may improve subsequent athletic performance due to facilitating greater contractility (2) — meaning that the right stretch could help you exert more strength and power in later workouts.
Further, a dedicated stretching regime has been shown to reduce subsequent injury risk when performed after exercise. (3)
The caveat to the efficacy lies in the minimum effective duration of the stretch itself. In order to see long-lasting effects, you should hold each stretch for several minutes when possible. (2)(3) This may not be ideal for when you need to get a good workout in quickly or are warming up for a CrossFit class, but it does make active stretching a stellar addition to your active recovery days.
Managing your training “economy” is important whether you’re just getting started in the gym or are a battle-hardened veteran. If you’re going to add something like active stretching into your routine, it should have a tangible effect on performance.
Fortunately, various meta-analyses back active stretching as a viable — and in some cases “necessary” — way to increase performance (4), particularly in activities with high flexibility demand, which is familiar territory for anyone dedicated to resistance training.
Active Stretching Alternatives
No matter how much of your day you set aside for training, going through a full stretch routine at the end of a hard workout can feel like a chore. While there aren’t necessarily ways to cheat your way to the benefits without doing the work, you can find some similar effects from other methods.
There are more than a few high-quality articles discussing the benefits of yoga at length, but for our purposes, it can be a great way to stick to a stretching routine long term.
Whether you’re following a virtual guide or are attending an in-person class, yoga provides some welcome structure and variance to keep it fresh and fun that you may not find elsewhere.
This may seem like a bit of a reach at first, but if you really lack the time or interest in rolling out a yoga mat for a good stretch sequence, incorporating supersets may yield some similar benefits to active stretching, at least temporarily.
Since one of the critical elements of the active stretch is reciprocal inhibition — one muscle shortening while the other lengthens — so, a light superset of, say, two lower body movements like leg curls and leg extensions, could be an effective warm-up or preventative care measure for the knees.
When performed with very, very light weights, extended pause reps and slow tempo eccentrics can really improve flexibility and prime you to squat or deadlift without aches and pains.
This is especially common in sports like Olympic lifting, where weightlifters will often take an empty bar and sit in the bottom of their snatch position for an extended period of time as part of their warm-up.
Since stretching isn’t as straightforward as normal training — there isn’t really an ideal set and rep scheme — you’re likely to have a question or two. Luckily, we can address some common concerns and hopefully dispel some myths as well.
Is stretching before a workout bad?
It depends. Much of the dogma about stretching prior to a workout being “bad” comes from literature that suggested a timed stretch right before initiating activity — usually a vertical jump test — limited power output.
While this does have some merit, it also isn’t very realistic. As long as you aren’t performing a two-minute hamstring stretch and then immediately trying to set a new deadlift PR, active — and even static — stretching should have little to no detrimental effects on performance.
Do I need to stretch if I’m already flexible?
Technically, you don’t “need” to stretch even if your muscles are perceived as tight, since muscle tone isn’t necessarily predictive of injury in all cases, though it tends to be a reliable indicator (5).
However, there are more benefits to stretching than just an increase in range of motion, which we’ve discussed above as well. So, even if you can already fold yourself into a pretzel, you might still get value from the right active stretches.
Should stretching be painful?
No. While mild discomfort is expected and varies based on the individual stretch, significant discomfort or pain doesn’t mean the stretch is “working better.”
In fact, it may even be detrimental. Since the physical mechanism of stretching involves relaxation of the nervous system — not physically lengthening the tissues — an intensely uncomfortable stretch may actually cause you to reflexively tighten up further. (6)
- Riley, D. A., & Van Dyke, J. M. (2012). The effects of active and passive stretching on muscle length. Physical medicine and rehabilitation clinics of North America, 23(1), 51–x.
- McHugh, M. P., & Cosgrave, C. H. (2010). To stretch or not to stretch: the role of stretching in injury prevention and performance. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 20(2), 169–181.
- Amako, M., Oda, T., Masuoka, K., Yokoi, H., & Campisi, P. (2003). Effect of static stretching on prevention of injuries for military recruits. Military medicine, 168(6), 442–446.
- Gremion G. (2005). Les exercices d’étirement dans la pratique sportive ont-ils encore leur raison d’être? Une revue de la littérature [Is stretching for sports performance still useful? A review of the literature]. Revue medicale suisse, 1(28), 1830–1834.
- Witvrouw, E., Danneels, L., Asselman, P., D’Have, T., & Cambier, D. (2003). Muscle flexibility as a risk factor for developing muscle injuries in male professional soccer players. A prospective study. The American journal of sports medicine, 31(1), 41–46.
- Apostolopoulos, N., Metsios, G. S., Flouris, A. D., Koutedakis, Y., & Wyon, M. A. (2015). The relevance of stretch intensity and position-a systematic review. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1128.
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