Why Your Gym Teacher Was Wrong

If you’re still stretching and toning like you did in 10th grade, you might be doing more harm than good.
Published March 3, 2016

As times have changed, so have some guidelines for the best ways to stretch. Many of the techniques that you may have learned in gym class are now considered passé – and in some cases, downright risky. “A lot of it has to do with the evolution of the science,” says Jessica Matthews, M.S., an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “Numerous studies have come out in the last decade about the most effective ways for stretching. We don’t just accept exercise at face value anymore — we ask what the exercise is designed to do and whether it’s safe and effective.”

For one thing, the ballistic stretching we all remember so well, in which you bounced through your moves? It’s a total no-no. It’s now believed that dynamic stretching — movements that take the joints through their full range of motion (think: leg swings, arm circles, etc) — is best for pre-workout stretching. After a workout, static stretching is the way to go. “Static stretching is more effective and safer at the conclusion of a workout when your muscles are more pliable,” Matthews notes. That’s when you can get the greatest benefits for your overall flexibility and posture, and perhaps even reduce your chances of getting post-exercise muscle soreness.

Take a look at these new takes on old moves.

Old-school move: Neck rolls
The risk: To loosen up the muscles in the neck, you may have been instructed to roll your head in vigorous circles—from the right side to the front, the left side, to the back, and around again. “Tilting the neck and head backwards, in particular, involves hyperextension of the neck, which can lead to injuries,” explains exercise physiologist Richard Cotton, M.A., national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine. You can pinch nerves in the neck and at the base of your skull, compress disks in the cervical spine, and make yourself dizzy.

New-school move: Slowly tuck your chin to your chest then stretch your right ear towards your right shoulder followed by your left ear towards your left shoulder. This way, you’ll stretch the muscles in the back and sides of the neck in a gentle, controlled manner.

Old-school move: Seated hurdler’s stretch (with one leg extended behind you, knee bent at a 90-degree angle)
The risk: Having your leg twisted behind you this way “torques the knee and puts unnecessary stress on the knees and hips,” Cotton says. It can strain the kneecap itself and lead to overstretching of ligaments in the knee and hips, increasing your risk of injury.

New-school move: Instead of bending your right leg behind you (while your left leg is extended straight in front of you on the floor), bend your right knee and place the sole of your right foot against the inside of your left thigh; then gently stretch forward toward your extended left leg, keeping your back straight. When you reach maximum tension, you’ll feel a tugging sensation in your hamstring; hold the stretch (for 20 seconds) then sit up and switch legs.

Old-school move: Full cobra
The risk: Lying face-down, pushing your torso off the floor with your arms fully extended and lifting your head back so you’re looking at the ceiling (as you do with the full cobra) leads to excessive compression of the lumbar and cervical spines, Matthews says. “This can compromise the integrity of the spine and possibly lead to low back injury or pain or exacerbate a back condition you already have.”

New-school move: Modified cobra. Start in the same position as the full cobra but place your forearms on the floor so your elbows are under your shoulders; then, push your chest up slightly, keeping your neck in line with your spine and your eyes looking directly in front of you.

Old-school move: Straight-leg toe touches
The risk: Standing with straight legs and locked knees and reaching (or worse, bouncing) toward the floor increases your risk of pulling or tearing a muscle in your legs and placing unnecessary stress on the ligaments of the knees. “The older we get, the higher the risk with this move,” Cotton says. 

New-school move: Single leg hamstring stretch. While standing with your feet parallel, move your right foot about 12 inches forward, place your right heel on the ground (lifting the rest of the foot off the ground), bend your left knee and put your left hand on your left thigh for stability; then, hinge at the hips and lean toward your extended right leg. Gently hold the stretch then repeat on the other side.

Old-school move: Full plough
The risk: If you lie on your back, lift your butt overhead and try to touch your feet to the floor behind your head (the classic full plough), you’ll place excessive pressure on the disks in your back, Cotton says. You’ll also create compression of the cervical spine, which can injure your neck. 

New-school move(s): To stretch your spine in a gentler fashion, lie on your back, tuck your chin to your chest, and hug your knees to your chest. Or, do a child’s pose: Start in a kneeling position, drop your butt to your heels, then lay your torso down on your thighs and extend your arms overhead until they touch the floor (rest your forehead on the floor). “This is a great way to stretch your back safely while protecting the neck and spine,” Matthews says.

Old-school move: Swimmer’s stretch
The risk: With this move, you clasp your hands behind your back then pulse your arms upward toward your shoulders (behind you). The trouble is, you can end up overstretching your shoulders and injuring your ligaments, Cotton warns. This can lead to shoulder instability, the opposite of what you want!

New-school move: The goalpost stretch. While sitting or standing, raise your arms overhead (keep your shoulders in their sockets!), then gently lower your arms, bending your elbows at right angles, until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, Matthews suggests. (Your arms will resemble a goalpost—with your head in the middle.) If you pull your arms toward your back slightly, you’ll feel an additional stretch in your chest (pectorals) and shoulders.