How to Stretch Before Exercising

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Christine Woods, MSEd
First raise one leg with the knee bent. Release and step forward. Photo by Michael Mullen

Are you a walker, a runner or do you like to hit the gym? Whatever your exercise routine, your body will benefit from stretching first. Stretching before you exercise, called dynamic stretching, increases body temperature and blood flow to the working muscles, helping loosen joints and muscles so they can move better. It also helps prevent injury.

Dynamic stretches differ from static stretches, which are best incorporated into your cool-down (after exercising). Generally held for 10 to 30 seconds, static stretching is designed to improve muscle flexibility. In contrast, dynamic stretches are not held. They are active muscle movements that stretch targeted muscles and improve joint mobility without holding an end position.

Even if you aren’t preparing for exercise, dynamic stretching may help alleviate tight spots caused by poor posture, sitting at your desk, or everyday activities. Moving as you stretch also strengthens your balance and coordination and may help prevent falls. This is especially important for those with celiac disease who are at greater risk for bone fracture. Dynamic stretching, simply put, helps you move and feel better.

The following movements can be done any time of day or specifically as a part of your pre-workout routine. Perform each movement around 10 times. Cycle through these exercises so that you are continuously moving for 5 to 10 minutes. Hold onto something for balance if needed.

1. Knee Grabs

Stand with your feet together. Raise one leg with the knee bent. Grab it with both hands and pull it in and up to stretch your glutes. Release your leg, step forward and raise the opposite leg. Continue walking forward, alternating legs with each step.

2. Foot Grabs

Targets the knees, while stretching the front of the legs (quads and hip flexors).

Stand with your feet together. Kick one foot toward your butt, bending your knee. As it swings up, grab the top of your foot, pulling your heel toward your butt. Release the leg, step forward and pull the opposite foot toward your butt. Continue walking forward, alternating legs with each step.

Christine Woods, MSEd
Photo by Michael Mullen

3. Leg Cradles

Targets the hips and stretches the glutes.

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lift your right knee and grab it with your right hand. Grab your right ankle in your left hand. Gently pull your right leg toward your chest. Release the leg back to the ground and repeat on the opposite side with your other leg.

Christine Woods, MSEd
Photo by Michael Mullen

4. Forward Bends

Targets the lower back and stretches the back of the legs (hamstrings).

Christine Woods, MSEd
Stand with your feet together. Cross one ankle over the opposite ankle. Photo by Michael Mullen
Christine Woods, MSEd
With only a slight bend in the knees, keep hips high as you forward fold and reach down toward the ground. Return to standing and repeat on the opposite side. Photo by Michael Mullen

5. Dynamic Hip Circles

Targets the hips.

Start with feet shoulder-width apart. Keep torso tall and facing forward throughout. In one fluid movement, lift the knee slightly higher than hip level, out to the side and back as far as it will comfortably go. Bring the knee down and return the leg to the start position. Repeat on the opposite leg.

6. Zombie Walks

Targets the hips and stretches the back of the legs (hamstrings).

Stand with your feet together. Take a step forward with one leg while kicking the opposite leg up to hip height or whatever height it will comfortably go. The kicking leg should be kept straight and your arms should be straight out in front of you the entire time. Continue walking forward, alternating legs with each step.

7. Calf Stretch Lunges

Targets the ankles and stretches the back of the lower legs (calves).

Stand with your feet together. Step back with one leg into a lunge position and place both hands on your forward leg for support. Keep your back straight, your hips squared and your lower back heel to the ground while lunging. Return to start position and repeat on the opposite side.

Christine Woods, MSEd
Photo by Michael Mullen

8. Shoulder Circles

Targets the shoulders and stretches the front of the chest.

Start with your shoulders relaxed and down with your arms at your sides. Roll your shoulders forward, up, back and down in a continuous motion. After all repetitions are completed, reverse direction and repeat.

9. Elbow Circles

Targets the shoulders and stretches the front of the chest.

Repeat the same movement as performed during shoulder circles but with bent elbows. Take the movement through a greater range of motion. Reverse direction and repeat.

10. Arm Circles

Targets the shoulders and stretches the front of the chest.

Repeat the same movement performed during shoulder circles and elbow circles but with straight arms. Imagine tracing large circles with your fingertips. This shoulder movement will take you through the greatest range of motion. Reverse direction and repeat.

Fitness expert Christine V. Woods, MSEd, ACSM-CCEP, CSCS is a 25-year industry veteran, serving as clinical exercise physiologist, lifestyle coach, university educator and fitness educator for the Athletic & Fitness Association of America (AFAA).

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