Stretching is always a good idea. Whether you bend and stretch for a few seconds in bed, at your desk, or while watching a movie, your body will be grateful. That said, when you’re trying to limber up before a workout, reduce muscle soreness, or improve your flexibility, the length of time you hold a stretch suddenly starts to matter.
Typically, most people don’t hold a stretch for as long as they should, says yoga teacher Trin Perkins, M.S.Ed, RYT 200. If you’re just stretching an arm or a leg for a few seconds, it may feel nice — but it’s not going to do much for your muscles. “Not holding a stretch long enough and not stretching frequently are two common reasons that people don’t experience results from stretching,” she tells Bustle. “It takes several seconds to fully relax into a stretch, get into a comfortable position to hold it, and relax into the discomfort.”
In other words, when you let go too quickly, your muscles don’t have enough time to do their thing. During a stretch, “there’s an increase in blood flow and circulation to the area,” Perkins says. Your muscle fibers and connective tissues also elongate, she adds, which gently realigns any “disorganization” in your fibers so your body can function more optimally. That’s why it feels so good to reset with a stretch after sitting in the same position for hours, and also why it matters how long you hang on. Here, experts reveal how long you should hold a stretch, depending on what you’re prepping for.
How Long To Hold A Stretch
Before getting into the specifics, there are two different types of stretches to consider: dynamic and static. A static stretch is the kind you hold without moving, says Dr. Jacob Hascalovici, M.D., Ph.D., the chief medical officer at Clearing. Think of a standing hamstring stretch, an upper back stretch, or a quad stretch. Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, are more fluid and move you through an area’s full range of motion, Hascalovici explains. Think rocking back and forth in side lunges, twisting your torso for trunk rotations, or circling your arms or legs.
In general, a static stretch should be held for 15 to 30 seconds at a time, according to The American College of Sports Medicine. After you’ve held it for roughly 30 seconds, you can repeat the stretch two to four more times so that you’ve worked the area for at least 60 seconds total. You can also hold a stretch for up to 45 seconds if the muscle is extra tight, Hascalovici says, but don’t go any longer than that. “When you hold a static stretch longer than 45 seconds, you may notice having slightly wobblier balance or slower reaction times if you leap into strenuous exercise or a sport directly afterward,” he explains. “That’s because long stretches affect your muscle fibers, reactivity, and nerve-to-muscle connections.” (That’s also why static stretches are recommended post-activity.)
Feel free to do a static stretch after a workout or whenever you’re feeling stiff. “Some say [static stretching] helps prevent soreness; others are fans of post-workout stretches because they promote flexibility,” Hascalovici says. “As long as you’re not pushing past discomfort, long static stretches after working out can help you cool down. You may also observe a mental benefit from giving yourself time to reset.”
As for dynamic stretching, your best bet is to do movement-based stretches for five to 10 minutes before exercising or as a general way to loosen up. Choose three to 10 different dynamic stretches and repeat each one 10 times — 10 trunk twists, 10 side-to-side lunges, 10 arm circles, etc. — as a way to prime your body for activity or to just get the blood flowing.
“Dynamic stretches are often done on specific areas of the body to prepare them for sport or weight training,” Perkins explains. “For example, a swimmer might do a series of arm circles before doing laps or a runner might do a few rounds of standing hip circles before hitting the trail.” These moving stretches also feel really good after prolonged sitting. “They get the body moving, build heat, and prepare [you] to move in multiple planes of motion,” she adds. Also notable? “Dynamic stretches help the body retain flexibility, meaning you’ll likely notice more freedom of movement and less tension after dynamic versus static stretches.”
Of course, as with all things related to health and exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. If your physical therapist has you doing a specialty stretch to help with an ailment or injury, for example, then you might be asked to hold it for 30 seconds, a minute, or even longer, Hascalovici tells Bustle.
“The most important thing is not to stretch to the point of pain,” Perkins says. If you feel burning, tingling, or any other unpleasant sensations, that’s your cue to ease up. Also note that pain is different from discomfort, and you can push through the latter to ease into a stretch. You should also make sure to stretch both sides of the body equally, Perkins says. That’ll ensure your muscles stay balanced, so you get the full benefit of your stretch routine.
For general limberness, you should aim to stretch on the regular. “I recommend stretching for shorter periods every day or every other day, versus stretching the same muscles in the same way for longer periods daily,” Perkins says. “Moderation mixed with consistency is the key to a proper stretching routine.”
If you need a little extra help during a stretch or want to go deeper, Perkins recommends using a stretch strap. “But don’t feel like you have to go to your end range,” she says. As long as you hold your stretch for the proper length of time, you’ll be off to a great start.
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Trin Perkins, M.S.Ed, RYT 20, yoga teacher