It doesn’t matter if you’re a chronic sitter, a daily exerciser, or a weekend warrior, most understand the benefits of stretching. It sends blood stream to your muscles and offers your joints assistance in moving through their full scope of movement. Stretching enhances your stance and athletic execution while reducing your risk of pain and injury.
However when you do yoga or a flexibility routine, do you know which muscles you’re actually stretching? Or whether you’re performing each stretch correctly?
With this knowledge, you can pick the best stretches for your specific goals. Furthermore, if you ever feel pain — and I don’t mean stretchy sort of pain, but the “Whoa, something doesn’t feel right” sort of agony — you can pinpoint the muscle giving you problems and modify your stretch to avoid injury.
If you feel pressure or strain on your joints, you are pushing too much, so you should only feel these stretches in the belly of the muscle. As you stretch, focus on your breathing and move through the movements as naturally as possible.
Don’t worry about how long you’re stretching , focus on feeling how your muscles relax and getting them back to their natural, resting lengths, which takes 5 to 30 seconds for each muscle. If you think that you didn’t get anywhere with a specific stretch, try a different position.
These illustrations were created by Vicky Timón, a yoga expert and author of “Encyclopedia of Pilates Exercises,” and James Kilgallon, CSCS, creator of Mazlo’s Body Maintenance Program.
Muscles Targeted: Rectus Abdominus and External Obliques. This stretch is reserved for people who already have good flexibility. Sit on your heels and place your hands behind you and push your hips up and forward. Avoid putting too much pressure on the lumbar spine. If you have problems with your neck don’t drop your head back.
- Wide Forward Fold
Muscles Targeted: Adductors. This is a good exercise to open the hips, and stretch the adductors and hamstrings. Keep your knees bent and leave your spine straight. When your muscles start to release you can straighten your legs, round out your back and reach for your feet. Pull on the bottom of the balls of your feet to release the calf muscles. If you can’t reach your feet you can use a belt or towel. Also you can do this stretch lying on your back with your feet up the wall.
Muscles Targeted: Adductors. This is a deep groin stretch that can place pressure on your knees so it’s good to be on a soft surface. Start with resting on your hands and knees and slowly bring your knees wider until you feel a good stretch in your groin muscles. You can feel minor variations in the stretch as you push your hips back and forward.
- Wide Side Lunge Pose
Muscles Targeted: Adductors. Start with your feet forward in a wide stance and put your legs as straight as possible. Slowly walk your hands to your right foot while bending your right knee and rotating your left toes up to the ceiling, sitting into your right hip. Keep your right foot flat on the ground.
- Butterfly Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Adductors. Start in a seated position and bring the soles of your feet together and sit tall through your sit bones. Progress this stretch by placing pressure on your knees with your hands. The closer your feet are to your body the more you will stretch your groin muscles. Bring your feet farther from your hips and slowly round your upper body to release your back muscles.
- Forearm Extensor Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Forearm Extensor. Start with packing your shoulder down and back. Then externally rotate the shoulder for the optimal position to stretch the forearm muscle. Once in this position apply pressure to your opposing hand to begin the stretch. You can progress this stretch by touching the tips of your fingers together in a tea cup shape.
7.Lateral Side Flexion of the Neck
Muscles Targeted: Sternocleidomastoid “SCM”. Keep your neck as long as possible while slowly dropping your ear to your shoulder, but make sure you are not collapsing your cervical spine. You can boost this stretch with being seated on a chair and clutching the bottom of the seat.
- Neck Rotation Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Sternocleidomastoid “SCM”. Rotate your neck slowly, while keeping your chin slightly elevated to isolate the SCM. If you like to get a deeper stretch, apply pressure with the opposite hand from the direction that you are rotating.
9.Neck Extension Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Sternocleidomastoid “SCM”. Place your hands on your hips, while keeping your spine long, start to tilt your head back. But make sure you are not collapsing your cervical spine.
- Lateral Side Flexion of the Neck with Hand Assistance
Muscles Targeted: Sternocleidomastoid “SCM” and Upper Trapezius. Keep your neck as long as possible and start to slowly drop your ear to your shoulder, but make sure you are not collapsing your cervical spine. You can boost this stretch if you sit on a chair and grab the bottom of the seat.
11. Half Kneeling Quad / Hip Flexor Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Psoas and Quadricep. Start in a half-kneeling position. Slowly bring your right hip forward and you should begin to feel a stretch in the front of your hip. Take your back foot and squeeze your back glute to rise the stretch on your Hip Flexors.
- Lateral Shoulder Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Side Deltoid. Put your arm across your body and lightly place pressure on your arm to boost the stretch on your shoulder.
13.Forearm Extensor Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Stretch the forearm extensor by pushing your shoulder down and back, and externally rotating the shoulder. Apply pressure with your opposite hand to begin the stretch
- Standing Assisted Neck Flexion Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Trapezius Muscle. Start with standing with your feet together. Keeping your spine long, slowly sit your hips back and round your upper back, tucking your chin to your chest at the same time.
15.Lat Stretch with Spinal Traction
Muscles Targeted: Latissimus Dorsi. Start by taking a firm grip on bar, then slowly lift your feet off the ground. You should feel a stretch in your lats and chest. If you take your feet completely off the ground you will feel traction in your your lumbar spine. Avoid this stretch if you have recently injured your shoulder, and/or have impingement of the shoulder.
- Lat Stretch at the Wall
Muscles Targeted: Latissimus Dorsi. Place both hands on the corner of a wall or post. While keeping your spine long, slowly push your hips out to the side. Don’t do this stretch if you have lower back problems.
Muscles Targeted: Latissimus Dorsi. Start on your hands and knees then slowly bring your hips back until your forehead is on the floor. You can bring your knees wider to get a better stretch in your hips. Arch your upper back and externally rotate your shoulders to stretch your lats and chest muscles.
- Standing Calf Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Soleus and Gastrocnemius. You can perform this stretch on a rack or on the edge of a stair step. Lightly rotate your ankles internally and externally to actively stretch the calf muscles.
Muscles Targeted: Psoas and Hamstring. This is an advanced stretch, so be aware if you have any kind of hip problems. Start in a kneeling lunge position. It will be good to have the support of a chair as your hip flexors and hamstrings release.
- Seated Forward Fold / Seated Toe Touch
Muscles Targeted: Hamstrings and Calves. Start by sitting into your sit bones and bend the knees if needed. As your flexibility improves your legs will naturally straighten. If you have back problems keep the spine as straight as possible. You can also perform this stretch lying on your back with your feet up a wall.
21.Single Leg Forward Bend
Muscles Targeted: Hamstrings. Put one foot in front of the other. Place your hands to your hips and while keeping the back straight, begin to bend from the hips.
- Deep Squat
Muscles Targeted: Glutes. This movement has a total effect on all areas of your body. If you have bad knees, or cannot keep your heels on the ground, practice your squat before proceeding. Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart then slowly lower yourself into the deep squat. Once in position bring your arms inside your legs and lightly apply pressure to the inside of your knees, sitting into the hips and heels. You can also practice this position lying on your back with your feet against a wall.
23.Seated Half King Pigeon Pose
Muscles Targeted: Glutes. Sit down and slowly pull your leg to your chest and rotate your hip while keeping your spine straight. You should feel this stretch in your glute.
- Standing Calf Stretch at the Wall
Muscles Targeted: Soleus and Gastrocnemius. Start in a lunge position with your back foot turned out. Slowly place your back heel to the ground to stretch your calf muscles.
25.Lateral Flexion at the Wall
Muscles Targeted: External Obliques. Keep your spine long and slowly push your hips out the side. Don’t do this if you have lower back problems.
- Supine Twist
Muscles Targeted: Glutes and External Obliques. This is a great stretch for people who are trying to manage Sciatic Pain. Start by lying flat on your back then bring one leg across your body, slowly rotating your gaze and upper body in the opposite direction. The key to this stretch is using your breath to open up your rib cage and sacroiliac joint and hip area without placing too much pressure on the lower back. If you find this stretch to be too difficult you can stack both of your knees on top of each other. Once in this position you will feel more of a stretch on the upper spine when the knees are higher, and more of a stretch on the lumbar spine when the knees are lower.
27.Lateral Flexion with a Dowel
Muscles Targeted: External Obliques and Latissimus Dorsi. With your spine long, slowly push your hips out to the side while keeping your shoulders externally rotated. Don’t do this stretch if you have lower back problems.
- Triangle Pose
Muscles Targeted: External Obliques. Start with a wide stance with your front foot straight ahead, and your back foot at 90 degrees. Put your hand on your front leg or floor as you sit back into your front hip with a straight back. As you rotate away from your front leg keep your gaze on the hand that is in the air.
29.Chest Stretch at the Wall
Muscles Targeted: Pectorals. Face the wall with your thumb up. Slowly rotate away from the wall to stretch your chest muscle. You should feel this stretch in the belly of the muscle. If you feel it in the shoulder joint you are stretching too far.
- Assisted Chest Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Chest and Latissimus Dorsi. Start by lying on the floor with your palms facing up. As you partner sits into a deep squat you should feel a stretch in your chest and lats. You will also get some traction in your spine from the stretch. Avoid this stretch if you have impingement of the shoulder.
31.Seated Half Pigeon Variation
Muscles Targeted: Anterior Tibialis. Sit with your feet in front of you. Bring one hand behind you as you externally rotate your hip and bring one foot above your knee. Slowly lean forward, initiating the movement by hinging at the hips if you want to increase the stretch on your hip
- Supine Shoulder External Rotation Stretch
Muscles Targeted: Subscapularis. Start by lying flat on your back, bring your arm straight out to the side with your elbow at a 90 degree angle. Slowly bring the back of your hand to the floor. If you hand is far away from floor it means your rotator cuff and other muscles that control internal rotation are tight.
33.Down Dog Variation at the Wall
Muscles Targeted: Pectorals and Latissimus Dorsi. Place yourself far enough from a wall or rack so that when you touch the wall your body becomes parallel to the ground. Move into this position by hinging at the hips and keeping your spine straight. Once in position, push your chest forward creating a slight arch in your upper back, stretching your lats and chest muscles. If you have tight hamstrings try bending at the knees.
- Assisted Chest Stretch Variation
Muscles Targeted: Pectorals. Start by lying face down on the floor with your palms facing down. As your partner pulls back on your hands you will feel a deep stretch in your chest muscles. Avoid this stretch if you have impingement of the shoulder
35. Standing Upper Trapezius Stretch
Muscles Highlighted: Upper Trapezius Muscle. Stand erect and move your hands behind your lower back. Grasp your right wrist with your left hand. Pull your right arm as far as possible to the left. Your hands should be in back, or just outside of your left hip. Lower your head sideways, toward your left shoulder, until you feel the stretch in your neck. Maintain the stretch for 30 seconds and then repeat it on the opposite side.
36. Standing Upper Back Extension
Muscles Highlighted: The Teres Major, Rhomboid and Upper Trapezius Muscles. Stand erect and place your feet close next to each other. Extend your arms in front of you with your fingers interlaced and your palms facing forward. Lowering your head slightly forwards, push your hands frontward while exhaling, allowing your back to arch slightly while your knees are bending. Hold for 10 to 15 seconds.