Whether you’re recovering from a hard workout or looking to relieve tightness in your body, good stretching exercises can offer some much-needed relief for sore muscles and joints. But what if your body is feeling a bit more than achey—should you be stretching to relieve pain?
The answer depends on what type of pain you have. According to Amanda Freeman, founder and CEO of SLT and Stretch*d, tightness and minor aches and pains are best treated with a stretch. “Targeted stretches can reduce pain in the neck, shoulders, low back, and hips when accompanied by mindful breathing and relaxation,” adds CoreBarreFit instructor Fred DeVito.
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But for serious pain injuries, all the experts caution against any type of stretching. Jason Walsh, personal trainer and founder of Rise Nation, says that acute pain should never be treated with stretching, as you risk making the trauma worse by tearing or reopening a healing injury.
Freeman agrees and says that fresh or serious injuries should always be addressed by a doctor before you start stretching. You’ll want to avoid stretching when your muscles are in spasm, joints are swollen, or if the area in pain is too painful to touch, says DeVito. In these cases, rest is a better remedy than stretching, he adds.
Stretch slowly and gently
If you’ve got minimal tightness or minor aches, stretching can definitely help—and it’s fairly easy to do. In general, Freeman says that it’s best to stretch slowly and gently. “It’s key to ease into a deeper stretch or to gradually get deeper with stretches over the course of time,” she says.
“The key here is to stretch to the threshold of the pain and not cross the line by overstretching,” adds DeVito. “Approach each stretch with sensitivity by moving slowly and stopping the stretch prior to feeling the pain.”
It’s important to remember that stretching shouldn’t be used as the sole solution for body aches. Instead, stretching is a way to make you stronger overall. “Work on mobility, active stretching, and strength training as a primary focus,” says Walsh.
Common stretches to relieve minimal pain
When feeling some strain on your neck, Devito suggests a simple stretch of moving your head from side to side and then to the front. Start by gently and slowly tilting your head to the left, repeat on the right side, and then tilt your head down to stretch out the backside of your neck.
For something a bit more intricate, Freeman says her favourite stretch, the “Maybe” stretch, focuses on one side of your neck at a time. Start with stretching the right side and tilting your head to the left. Then reach your hand over the top of your head to grab your ear. You’ll gently tug your ear towards your shoulder and hold this stretch for two seconds before returning your neck back to neutral. She says to repeat this 10 times before moving on to the left side.
To stretch out the pectoral muscle, Freeman suggests starting with your arms extended out in front and at least at chest height with the palms of your hands facing each other. Then she says to swing your arms back as far as you can and hold your arms upward for about two seconds before returning them to neutral. Do this 10 times.
3. Hamstring and glutes
For a comprehensive stretch that includes both the hamstrings and glutes as well as the lower back, Freeman says to hug your knees. Start by lying down on your back with your knees bent and pointing up to the ceiling with feet flat on the floor. Then lift your knees toward your chest, using your hands behind your knees to help pull them in closer. Hold for two seconds before returning your feet back to the floor. Do this 10 times.
If you want to focus on the glutes, she recommends doing the “gloating glutes.” Start by lying down on your back with both legs straight out on the floor. Then bend one knee and bring it to a tabletop position, with one hand on your knee and the other hand on the shin to assist. Draw your chin to your chest and hold this for two seconds and repeat 10 times.
“You should feel this in your gluteal muscles (aka butt muscles),” she says. “These muscles are responsible for a lot of explosive movements, such as jumping in a HIIT workout. They can also lead to low back pain if they are tight.”
For the hamstrings, DeVito recommends placing your foot on a low bench and then taking a bow forward to gently stretch them out.
A waist stretch is pretty straightforward. DeVito says you simply bend your waist on each side to stretch out that area.
For a deeper stretch, Freeman suggests a stretch she calls the “side reacher.” You can do this either standing or sitting. First, place one hand behind your head and then reach down with your other arm, keeping that arm straight along your side as you reach down as far as you can. Hold for two seconds and then come back up before repeating 10 times. This will also help open up the side body, hip flexors, and obliques, she says.
In a stretch she calls “side sweeper,” Freeman says this will address the often-forgotten inner thigh muscle or adductor. You start by lying on your back. Then using a strap or towel, loop it around the ball of one foot of one leg. Then using the same hand on the same side of the leg, gently sweep that leg alongside your body and up towards the shoulder. Be sure to keep the leg parallel to the ground. The other leg stays straight and relaxed on the floor. Hold this position for two seconds before going back to neutral. Repeat 10 times.
There are three simple stretches to work out all parts of your back. For the lower back, DeVito suggests the same hugging knees stretch that Freeman recommends for the hamstrings and glutes.
For the upper back, DeVito suggests the eagle arm position, which has two variations. You can opt for a beginner eagle arm stretch where you cross your arms around your body as if you’re giving yourself a hug, according to Athletico Physical Therapy. For something more advanced, you can go from the hugging position and bend your elbows so that your fingers are pointing up to the ceiling. Twist your forearms and have the palms of your hands meet facing each other to feel an increased stretch.
If you want to focus on the pectoral muscle, he suggests lacing fingers behind your lower back and lifting your arms slowly to feel that deep stretch.
DeVito recommends the seated figure four and cross-over twist for the hips. You basically sit with your legs stretched out. Bring one foot and place it on the outer thigh of the leg stretched out. Hold on to your knee and twist. Repeat on the other leg.
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