You do regular cardio workouts and have just added resistance training, so you're hitting all your fitness bases, right? Almost. Add in stretching — either as part of your workout session, or on its own — and you've hit a fitness home run, according to Lynn Millar, PhD, PT, former professor of physical therapy and research coordinator at Andrews University.
"Stretching is essential to a good fitness program," says Millar. "It improves flexibility and helps protect against injury." When warming up for a workout, let the activity's intensity determine what you do, she advises. If you're playing a demanding tennis match, for example, you should stretch tight muscles as part of your overall warm-up; if you're just going for a light jog, stretching may not be necessary.
Check in with your muscles after you exercise, too. "Stretching after a workout will reduce the feeling of tightness that may develop later," says Millar. Who needs more motivation to stretch out than that?
So stretch it, but stretch it right
Still, not every stretch is good for you — and some even do more harm than good. We called our stretch experts and found the stretches you want to avoid, and some safer alternatives. Take a look:
Bad Stretch #1: The Plow
You stretch your back by lying on the floor with your feet in front of you. Then you pull your feet up and back behind your head, so your toes are touching the floor.
The problem: "This stretch puts too much pressure on the upper spine and neck area, and puts you at great risk for muscle strain," says John Acquaviva, PhD, associate professor of physical education at Northern Virginia Community College.
The alternative: Stretching your back is as easy as bending over. Stand up, bend forward at the waist — you should bend your knees — and hold onto your calves. Acquaviva adds, "Bending your knees is key, though; it takes the pressure off your hamstrings and puts the focus where it should be — on your lower back."
Bad Stretch #2: The Hurdler
You sit facing forward with both legs out in front of you. Then you bring one leg back behind you (bent at the knee) so that one heel is under your butt. Next, you lean back and feel the stretch in your quadriceps.
The problem: "This can do serious damage to the knee," warns Acquaviva, "to the point where surgery is needed."
The alternative: Try the standing quad stretch: Stand up straight, grab the top of your foot behind you, and gently pull your heel toward your butt. Keep your hips level, knees together and supporting leg slightly bent. Use a bar or the wall for balance, but don't lean forward. You can feel the stretch in your quads, without feeling pain in your knees.
Bad Stretch #3: The Old-Fashioned Windmill
Bending from the waist, you twist down, bringing your right hand to your left ankle, stretching your back and hamstrings.
The problem: Too much rapid stress on your lower back.
The alternative: Sit on the floor with your legs in a "V" in front of you. Turn to one leg and lean forward, keeping your back long and your shoulders square. Try to push your chest out beyond your toes. If it's too hard, bend your knee. "You get more out of this stretch," says Annemarie Miller, former group fitness training manager at New York Sports Clubs. "It stretches your lower back, hamstrings and inner thighs."
Bad Stretch #4: The Neck Roll
To loosen your neck muscles, you roll your head around in a circle.
The problem: "You don't want to roll your head in a complete circle," says Miller. "It puts too much stress on your neck and your cervical vertebrae. You can damage your spinal column, and add tension and stress to that area."
The alternative: Rolling your head left, forward and right is OK — just don't roll it back. But here's an even better solution: Sit up straight on the floor, look slightly up and raise your head up (not backwards). Feel yourself pulling up through your back and neck.