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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Setting Up A Flexibility Program

If you regularly stretch your muscles after they're fully warmed up — at the end of an aerobic workout, for example — you can gradually increase their resting length by lengthening the connective tissue that surrounds your muscle fibers. Improving flexibility in this way will make movement easier and more fluid and can also help prevent back pain, sciatica and other repetitive-motion injuries caused by tight muscles.

Only light stretches for limbering up should be done before beginning an exercise session. Any flexibility gains from stretching when your muscles aren't fully warmed up are strictly temporary.

All stretching movements should be done slowly, to the point where you feel a gentle pleasant tension in the muscle being stretched. For an effective stretch, you need to hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Never bounce as you hold a stretch, because this will activate your stretch reflex (an automatic, protective contraction).

As you relax and hold the stretch, breathe easily through your nostrils and concentrate on maintaining a feeling of pleasant tension in your muscles. If you feel any pain, stop immediately.

The more often you stretch, the more you'll lengthen your muscles. For maximum benefits, do your stretching routine several times each week.

Calf Stretch

Stand comfortably with your hands on your hips, or place both hands on a wall (shoulder's width apart), and step forward with your right foot (about a half-shoulder's width). Bend both knees, keeping your feet flat on the floor, and shift your weight to your forward foot. Slowly lower your hips, until you feel a gentle stretching sensation in the calf muscle and Achilles tendon of your left (rear) leg. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.

Hip Flexor Stretch

Step forward with your left leg (about a shoulder's width), and — keeping your left foot flat on the ground — lower your right knee so that your knee and toe rest on the ground. Your left (forward) knee should be directly above your left ankle. Gently lower your right (rear) hip, until you feel a gentle stretching sensation in the front of the hip. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.

Hamstring Stretch

Sit comfortably on the floor with your right leg straight and your left leg bent, so that the sole of your left foot rests flat against the inside of your right leg. Slowly curl your upper body down toward your right knee until you feel a gentle stretching sensation in your right hamstring. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat.

Shoulder Stretch

Standing comfortably, lace your fingers behind your back so that your palms are facing in toward your spine, thumbs pointing down at the ground. Slowly raise your linked hands up toward the ceiling, keeping your neck and back relaxed, until you feel a gentle stretching sensation in the front of your chest. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds.

Triceps Stretch

Bend your right arm behind your neck, so that your right elbow points to the ceiling. Grasp your right elbow with your left hand and pull it gently to the left, until you feel a stretching sensation at the back of your upper right arm. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then switch arms and repeat.

Lower Back Stretch

Lie on your back with both legs extended straight out. Bend your right knee and clasp it with both hands, then slowly pull the knee toward your chest as far is it will comfortably go. Breathe in deeply then exhale, relaxing and pulling the knee closer as you breathe out. Repeat this breathing action several times as you hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Then switch legs and repeat.

Mad Cat Stretch

Position yourself comfortably on your hands and knees, with your back horizontal and your eyes looking forward. Exhale slowly and contract your stomach muscles while allowing your head to hang down, so that your back curves upward like a dome. Hold for several seconds, then return to starting position, inhaling as you do. Repeat five to 10 times.

Back Extension Exercise

Lie on your stomach and stretch your head upward with your arms extended in front of you, forearms flat against the floor (your elbows should be directly under your shoulders). Leaning comfortably on your forearms, hold this stretch for two to five minutes. (Concentrate on relaxing and breathing deeply.)

Last updated September 13, 2011