You're Stretching Wrong If This Happens To You

For many people, gym class was their first experience with organized fitness. With the teacher at the front of the class, we learned how to stretch and perform body weight exercises. While these classes provide an important foundation for a person's fitness education, they can also leave students with a limited understanding of why they stretch, or more importantly, how to stretch properly.

The biggest mistake most people make is stretching before their warm-up. For years, it was taught that you should stretch before exercise or you might hurt yourself. But as experts at the Mayo Clinic explain, stretching is not a warm-up and stretching cold muscles can lead to injury.

Most people are best served by first going for a walk or a gentle jog and then stretching afterwards. However, competitive sprinters might do better to stretch after their competition, as the Mayo Clinic also states that stretching before an intense activity can weaken hamstring strength and may impact performance in other ways.

There are other ways that stretching can fail, even when timed properly. It's a deceptively simple practice. Knowing the signs of a bad stretch can help you avoid the pitfalls and get the most out of any routine.

Signs of improper stretching

Aside from stretching without a proper warm-up, Bodybuilding says that one of the worst stretching mistakes people can make is to stretch a particular muscle and then immediately use it. They use the example of performing a lower body stretch and then immediately going into a squat. Stretching extends the muscle, but the use of it forces the muscle to contract, effectively undoing the stretch.

This is similar to another common mistake — the practice of bouncing a stretch. Holding a stretch and then pulsing the limb into a slightly more extreme variation of the stretch over and over again is one way to turn a stretch into an injury (via Mayo Clinic).

These mistakes can lead to muscle tension and overstretching, two surefire signs of improper stretching. WebMD explains that an overstretched muscle will appear lax or limp instead of toned. This appearance is a warning sign not only that you've been overdoing the stretch, but that the muscle needs treatment and rest. When ignored, overstretching can develop into hyperextension, which affects ligaments and tendons as well as the muscles.

Stretching is key to a good workout, but only when done properly. Start with a warm-up before moving into gentle, dynamic stretches. Avoid pulsing the stretch and watch the muscles for signs of overuse. These steps may add a little more time to a workout, but they'll help avoid injury and increase the effectiveness of a good stretch.