Stretching is one of those parts of fitness that many of us tend to “forget” about. When you’re pressed for time, fitting in anything on top of your sweaty, heart-pumping workout can feel like a chore. But stretching regularly, either after your workout or on your days off, can help you relieve muscle tightness and improve your flexibility and mobility over time—which can ultimately help you do the workouts you love even better.
The more you stretch, the more your body will get used to it and your flexibility will hopefully increase—though everyone has different flexibility capabilities (yay genetics!) and things like muscle imbalances can also impact how bendy you are. Greater flexibility will allow you to move your muscles through a wider range of motion (ROM), which ultimately, can really help you do more exercises with proper form. It also will let you move easier and more comfortably through daily activities.
While static stretching after a workout does not prevent injury or cure muscle soreness, it can help change your perception of pain, Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., cofounder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City and Seattle, tells SELF. What does that mean? Because stretching after exercise feels good, it may cause a placebo-effect of sorts when it comes to soreness. But the benefits of stretching are more long term, Giordano adds.
Giordano suggests stretching on your rest days or after a workout, since a handful of research suggests static stretching before you work out may potentially decrease maximal muscle strength and your ability to move explosively. Also, it’s best to stretch when your body is already warm—increased blood flow makes your muscles more flexible—and it’s important to incorporate some sort of cool-down after a cardio workout to help your heart rate come back down in a controlled way.
Some key things Giordano suggests keeping in mind while you stretch it out: “Slowly move into the stretch, then hold; do not bounce, it can sometimes lead to injury; do not stretch into pain, only stretch until you feel the tension; do not stretch a strained muscle, as it may lead to more muscle damage; and if you feel pain, stop and contact your doctor or physical therapist.”
Below, we’ve rounded up some of the best stretches to do after an upper-body, with help from Giordano; Christi Marraccini, certified personal trainer and coach at Tone House; and Krystal Salvent, NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City. The instructions below are standard, but if you feel any pain while trying to execute these stretches, know that you don’t have to go through the full range of motion—just stretch to whatever point feels best for you.