Whether you’re a chronic sitter, a daily exerciser, or a weekend warrior, you probably know stretching is a critical habit. By sending blood flow to your muscles and helping your joints move through their full range of motion, stretching improves your posture and athletic performance while lowering your risk of pain and injury.
But when you do yoga or a flexibility routine, do you know which muscles you’re actually stretching? Or whether you’re performing each stretch correctly?
With this knowledge in your back pocket, you can choose the best stretches for your goals. And if you ever feel pain — and I don’t mean the good, stretchy kind of pain but the “Whoa, something doesn’t feel right” kind of pain — you can pinpoint the muscle giving you trouble and alter your technique to avoid getting injured.
You should feel these stretches in the belly of the muscle. If you feel pressure or strain on your joints, you are pushing too far. As you stretch, focus on your breath and move through these movements as naturally as possible.
Don’t worry about how long you’re holding the stretch. Instead focus on feeling your muscles relax back to their natural, resting lengths, which can take 5 to 30 seconds. If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere with a specific stretch, try a different variation.
Vicky Timón, a yoga expert and author of “Encyclopedia of Pilates Exercises,” created these beautiful illustrations, and James Kilgallon, CSCS, creator of Mazlo’s Body Maintenance Program, contributed the expert commentary.
1. Camel Pose
Muscles highlighted: Rectus Abdominus and External Obliques. This stretch is best reserved for people who have good flexibility already. Sit on your heels and place your hands behind you as you push your hips up and forward. Avoiding putting too much pressure on your lumbar spine. If you have neck problems do not drop your head back.
2. Wide Forward Fold
Muscles highlighted: Adductors. This is a great exercise to open the hips, and stretch the adductors and hamstrings. Start this stretch with your knees bent, and spine straight. As your muscles begin to release you can slowly straighten your legs, round out your back and reach for your feet. Lightly pull on the bottom of the balls of your feet to release the calf muscles as well. If you can not reach your feet you can use a belt or towel. You can also perform this stretch lying on your back with your feet going up the wall.
3. Frog Pose
Muscles Highlighted: Adductors. This is a deep groin stretch that can place pressure on your knees so it’s helpful to be on a soft surface. Start by resting on your hands and knees and slowly bring your knees wider until you feel a good stretch in your groin muscles. You will feel slight variations in the stretch as you actively push your hips back and forward.
4. Wide Side Lunge Pose
Muscles Highlighted: Adductors. Start with both feet forward in a wide stance with your legs as straight as possible. Slowly walk your hands to your right foot while bending your right knee and rotating your left toes up to the ceiling, sitting into your right hip. Keep your right foot flat on the ground.
5. Butterfly Stretch
Muscles Highlighted: Adductors. Start in a seated position and bring the soles of your feet together and sit tall through your sit bones. Progress this stretch by placing pressure on your knees with your hands. The closer your feet are to your body the more you will stretch your groin muscles. Bring your feet farther from your hips and slowly round your upper body to release your back muscles.