It’s tempting to bolt to the locker room or the car, still sweaty and out of breath, as soon as you finish your workout. After all, you’re busy and stretching after a workout isn’t nearly as important as the workout itself, right? We’ve all done it—but skipping our cool-down is one bad fitness habit we need to break.
Taking a few minutes to slow down ensures you walk out of the gym with a settled heart rate and central nervous system after pushing your body during your workout, says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault.
Good ol’ static stretching helps your body shift back into ‘rest’ mode and gives you a chance to work on your range of motion, so you can keep moving to your fullest potential day after day. Plus, stretching helps ward off delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and decrease your risk for injury, according to a review published in the Journal of Athletic Training.
Sold yet? Tack this trainer-tested, full-body stretch onto the end of your next workout to show your hard-working body some TLC. We promise you’ll be out the door in less than 10 minutes.
The cat-cow movement, which is driven by your core and pelvis, is a great full-body stretch to do after a workout. It can also counteract bad posture by increasing your awareness of your spine position, says Wickham.
How to do it: Start on all fours, looking at the floor a few inches in front of your fingers and lengthening from your head to your tailbone.
Begin the ‘cat’ phase by using your abs to curl your spine up towards the ceiling while tucking your tailbone as you exhale. (You’ll look like a Halloween cat.) Allow your chin to reach down and in toward your chest so your ears are between your biceps.
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Begin the ‘cow’ phase by allowing your belly to drop down to the floor and your back to arch as you inhale. Broaden across your shoulder blades, draw your shoulders back away from your ears, and lift your chin and chest to gaze up toward the ceiling.
Slowly cycle through eight to 10 rounds of cat-cow, keeping stress and pressure out of your head and neck.
2. Thoracic Spine Rotation
This move stretches your thoracic spine (middle and upper back) while reducing stiffness in your lower back by taking the muscles around your spine through their full ranges of motion, Wickham says.
How to do it: Start on all fours with your fingers spread slightly. Sit back on your heels and allow your forearms to drop to the ground. Keeping your right arm planted, place your left hand behind your head. Exhale and rotate your left elbow up to the sky, stretching the front of your torso. Hold for one deep breath in and out. Return to the starting position and repeat for five to 10 breaths. Switch arms and repeat.
3. Standing Side Bend
This simple position stretches your side-body muscles like your obliques, lats, even hip flexors, says Wickham. You’ll also engage the muscles you’re stretching (called an ‘isometric hold’), which research shows can boost flexibility and mobility even more than typical static stretching.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hips-width apart and lift your right arm straight up above your head. Bend to your torso to the left so your left hand extends down your left leg and you feel a stretch in your right oblique. Actively punch down with your left hand and up with your right hand and hold this position for three to five breaths before returning to a standing position. Perform five rounds per side.
4. Wall Stretch
Whether you just bench pressed, finished a vigorous Vinyasa class, or spent the day hunched over your desk before hitting the gym, chances are your pecs (chest muscles) could benefit from an extra stretch. That’s where the wall stretch comes in. It’ll also help loosen up your shoulders and triceps, Wickham says.
How to do it: Stand facing a wall (or pole) and place your right palm and forearm on the wall at shoulder-height. Slowly twist your feet to the left, pulling your body away from your outstretched right arm. Stop when you feel the stretch in your right pec. Exhale, pull your lower abs into your spine, and relax your shoulder blades back away from your ears. Then, walk a little further to the left left. Here, contract your chest muscles for 10 seconds, and then relax them for 10 seconds. If possible, take another step forward and repeat one more time. Release the stretch and repeat on the opposite side.
5. Hamstring Stretch
If you run, bike, or work a desk job, chances are your hamstrings need some extra attention. Hamstring flexibility doesn’t just help you touch your toes; it’s also hugely important for the health of your hips, knees, and back, according to research published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.
How to do it: Find a bench, box, or railing that’s a little lower than hip-height. Stand facing your platform and prop your right foot up so your heel is planted on the platform. Flex your foot and bend forward by creasing at your hips. Then, flex the hamstring and quads of your elevated foot for 10 seconds. Think about driving your heel down into the box. Relax your muscles and try to stretch a little deeper, then contract for another 10 seconds. Repeat for one minute, and then switch sides. Aim for three one-minute sets per side.