Before you joined a Little League team or were picked last for dodgeball in gym class, you probably learned the fundamentals of stretching. Which, when you're a kid, mostly amounts to half-heartedly touching your toes a few times before running around like a maniac.
Stretching pre- and post-exercise really does improve physical performance and helps prevent injury... but only if you're doing it right. To help you get the most out of this essential practice, personal trainers shared what makes them wince in the flexibility department, and what you should be doing instead.
Not knowing the difference between static and dynamic stretching
These names aren't so deceptive; static stretching is when you hold a pose for a period of time, like 60 seconds, says Juliet Kaska, an LA-based celebrity trainer. Dynamic stretching is any movement-based stretch that also activates the opposing muscle or muscle group -- like performing high knees while running in place.
Why does it matter? Contrary to what you may remember from gym class, static stretching isn't really a great idea before physical activity, since it doesn't enhance performance.
Rounding your back during hamstring stretches
While this classic, touch-your-toes forward fold might be the very first flexibility pose you learned, all too often the hamstring stretch is stripped of its efficiency and reduced to a rounded-back attempt to touch your toes, says Patrick Walsh, fitness manager at Crunch Park Ave in New York City. The goal is to stretch the back of the leg -- not touch your toes (or floor, if you're standing).
Amy Jordan, founder of WundaBar Pilates, suggests trying a standing pose to get a true stretch: place your hands shoulder-width apart on a counter, or back of a tall chair. Step your legs back so you're as close to an "L" shape as possible, with your feet parallel, directly below your hip sockets (about 4 to 6in apart). Actively push your heels into the floor below you, broadening your sit bones (ie., stick your butt out). "You’ll feel a much deeper stretch through the hamstrings than just folding forward," Jordan says.