Despite being one of the most important aspects of working out, stretching is one of the least explained parts of an exercise regime.
Sure, there's yoga, which focuses almost exclusively on the practice, and there's that cool-down your spinning teacher races through at the end, but how can the solo exerciser best learn to ensure muscle recovery and less pain the next day?
In this week's How To, "posturologist" Paul Gagne demonstrates to WatchMojo.com's wellness and fitness expert Annick Robinson just which stretches will work best for your legs after a workout — and which you've been doing wrong every since seventh grade gym class.
The first move to go? That classic pose of bending over one straight leg and bending the other in order to stretch out your hamstring, which Gagne says is not one muscle, but instead, three separate muscles that must each be stretched on their own.
Besides helping with flexibility, stretching really can add more to your workout. As you stretch, it helps increase blood circulation within the body, unknotting tissue in areas of pain, says Fitday.com. And according to Shape magazine, it can also counteract all those nasty hours of sitting we hear so much about by keeping your glutes active.
SEE: The biggest mistakes people make when stretching:
Not Doing It!
Yes, the number one mistake people make is forgetting to stretch in the first place. "Even professionals don't do it as religiously as we should," says Mary Jayne Johnson, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist and owner of Profound Wellness.
Even if stretching is on your mind, doing it intermittently or infrequently won't cut it. "Once a week isn't enough," says Stephen Cabral, CSCS, a certified conditioning specialist. "Aim for five to ten minutes once or twice a day -- it's more effective if you do it more frequently for less time."
Working The Wrong Muscles
If you focus on stretching muscles that are generally loose already, like your shoulders (which have less tension since we're usually hunched at a computer), you can end up ignoring muscles that are chronically tight. "Most of us have some degree of hamstring tightness behind the knee, and it's an under-stretched area," says Johnson. She recommends straightening your legs in a stretch often, to help alleviate the tension.
Moving Too Fast
"It's not like your workout, where speed is a good thing," says Cabral. If you move to quickly from stretch to stretch, you can put yourself at risk for injuries. Plus, moving too fast can reduce the effectiveness of your stretch.
Don't roll out of bed and into a stretch, cautions Cabral. You shouldn't work your muscles when they're "cold," so make sure you've been up and moving around for a bit before starting a morning stretch routine.
Using Stretching As A Warmup
"You should wake up your muscles first with some type of activity -- don't use it as your warmup," says Johnson. And once you've gotten revved up, choose your type of stretching wisely. Try to avoid static stretches, where you stand still and work one muscle or muscle group, before exercise. Instead focus on dynamic stretches with movement. "A lunge stretches your glutes, upper hamstrings and ankles, where a static standing quadriceps stretch just works the one muscle," says Cabral.
Don't be afraid to add in some equipment to your stretching -- one in particular to add is a yoga strap, since it provides resistance. But stop if you feel your muscles shaking or too much tension, says Cabral -- it's a sign your body is past its limit.
Holding Your Breath
Remember to breathe! "Holding your breath tightens your muscles, and that causes inflexibility," says Cabral. Take slow, steady breaths throughout your stretching to get maximum results.