While you might be tempted to just hop on the treadmill or dive right into your lower body strength training routine, it’s always a good idea to take a few minutes to stretch your legs first. If you view stretching as a chore, know that it really works to warm up your muscles so that you’re better prepped for activity (read: slaying your workout), says Austin Martinez, MS, ATC, CSCS, the director of education for StretchLab. It’s also a good way to help ensure you don’t get injured.
Martinez recommends moving through a series of dynamic stretches, aka stretches with movement (versus static stretches), to get your blood pumping pre-workout. They’ll prepare your body for exercise, whether you’re about to go for a run, take a kickboxing class, or lift weights. If you’re about to do cardio, stretching will help to improve your range of motion and balance. And if you’re about to do weight training, stretching will help your muscles to get ready to work hard while also helping to restore and repair them, Martinez explains.
That said, a quick pre-sweat stretch is especially important if you’re about to do a workout that requires quick movements, says ACE-certified personal trainer TJ Mentus. “Muscles that are warmed up are more responsive and can produce strength better than when they have not been warmed up,” he tells Bustle. “It helps reduce injury in a similar way: Because the muscles can perform better, they can handle more load and strain preventing possible strains or tears.”
Moral of the story? Your body and your workout will be better off if you properly stretch your legs first. Read on below for the best stretches to do on leg day, before a run, or any other activity that focuses on the lower half of your body.
1. Lunge With Trunk Rotation
According to Martinez, this move targets your glutes and thighs, but also gives your core a good stretch so that your whole body is warmed up and ready to work out.
- Start by standing with your feet together.
- Step back with your left foot.
- Once it’s planted, rotate your upper body and twist to the right, away from the reversed leg.
- Return your left leg to the starting position.
- Repeat the motion, this time stepping back with your right foot and twisting your torso to the left.
- Focus on slow and controlled movements. “Quality over quantity,” Martinez says.
- Complete 10 lunges on each side.
2. Hamstring Sweeps
Martinez also recommends this dynamic stretch to get your heart rate up as well as the muscles and joints in your legs moving.
- Start by standing with your feet together.
- Step your right leg slightly forward with toes pointed up.
- Bend your left knee and in a slow, controlled sweeping motion, reach down towards your right foot.
- Return to standing.
- Step forward with your left leg with toes pointed up.
- Sweep your hands down towards your feet again.
- Feel the stretch in your hamstring.
- You can walk forward doing this as a continuous motion.
- Aim for 10 sweeps on each leg.
3. Hurdle Steps
This stretch will warm up your legs and loosen the muscles in your hips, Mentus says. It’ll also challenge your balance, which is a good way to prep for a harder workout. “This will make you use your leg and hip muscles to pull your leg through a full range of motion while trying to get over the hurdle,” he tells Bustle. “It will also help increase stability and open up the hips.”
- Pretend that there is an imaginary hurdle in front of you at about hip height.
- Lift one leg high. Imagine that you’re stepping over the hurdle.
- Then, pull your leg back to you to “step back over it” and return to your starting position.
- Step forward and backward over the imaginary hurdle five times.
- For a challenge, you can step over it sideways as well, five times on each side.
4. Runner’s Lunge
The runner’s lunge is a lunge variation that helps prime your lower body for exercise. “This stretch opens up the psoas muscle and quads,” Mentus says. “It’s also a great one to do if you have been sitting all day.”
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Bring one foot forward and plant it next to the hand on that side.
- Straighten your back leg and push your hips forward.
- Try to focus on the stretch in the front of the hip and thigh.
- Hold for one minute on each side.
5. Adductor Frogger Rock Backs
Next up, you might want to do a “frogger” stretch to target the adductor muscles, aka the inner thighs. “This is great to do before a squat day or running workout, as it helps to open the hips up,” says Jackie Fenton, PT, a yoga teacher and owner of Bright Heart Yoga Studio.
- Start in a tabletop position on all fours.
- Stretch one leg out to the side as far as is comfortable, making sure you can place the sole of your foot on the ground.
- Slowly rock hips back towards the kneeling knee heel, and then back to neutral
- Repeat eight to 10 times on each side.
The inchworm stretches the calf muscles and hamstrings, says Fenton. “It’s particularly great for cardio that involves running because you use your hamstring and calf muscles quite a bit for power with running,” she says. “This will help the muscles to be warm and do their job efficiently.”
- Start in a standing position.
- Fold forward and walk your hands to a downward-facing dog position.
- Keep walking your hands out so that you are in a high plank position.
- Walk your feet towards your hands, so that you are back in a downward-facing dog.
- Repeat five times.
7. Standing Knee Raises
This stretch hits the hip flexors and hamstrings, says fitness pro Laurie Alfano, and tests your balancing skills. If you add in arm raises, it’ll get your heart rate up, too.
- Stand tall with your feet parallel.
- Lift one knee up to your chest at a time, like you’re marching.
- Raise the opposite arm of the leg that’s raised to get your heart rate up.
- Keep marching.
- Do 20 leg raises per leg.
8. Side Reaches
According to Alfano, this stretch is a great way to warm up all the muscles of your lower body while also targeting your obliques and back.
- Open your legs wide and have a slight bend in your knees.
- Place one hand on your hip as you reach your other arm overhead towards the other side.
- Return to stand straight, bringing your elbow down to your hip.
- Perform 16 per side.
9. Forward Fold
When in doubt, you can always do a quick and classic forward fold, which Alfano says is great for stretching the hamstrings.
- Plant your feet slightly wider than your hips.
- Bend forward and reach your hands towards the floor.
- Keep your heels on the floor.
- Have a slight bend in knees, but still feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Hold for a few seconds.
- Return to standing.
- Perform 16 folds.
Iwata, M. (2019.) Dynamic Stretching Has Sustained Effects on Range of Motion and Passive Stiffness of the Hamstring Muscles. Journal of sports science & medicine.
Page, P. (2012). Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation. Int J Sports Phys Ther. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/
TJ Mentus, ACE-certified personal trainer
Jackie Fenton, PT, yoga teacher
Laurie Alfano, fitness pro