Do you ever wake up with a stiff neck? Or maybe your back is tight from sitting all day? Or are your hips tense after your indoor-cycling class? You need a way to loosen up those tight spots pronto. Properly stretching the involved muscles or using a foam roller a few minutes a day are both great ways to loosen up all of those tight spots.
A Stretch for What Ails You
Before stretching, it’s a good idea to warm up your muscles. Stretching a cold muscle is not only ineffective, but it could also cause injury. Warming up is pretty simple and doesn’t require any fancy equipment. If you’re fitting a quick stretch break into your workday you can jog in place, take a quick walk around the office or do some dynamic stretches.
The key to a good stretch is how long it’s held. To get the most out of a stretch, it should be held for at least 30 seconds and be repeated at least two or three times. Holding a stretch for less than 20 seconds doesn’t let your muscle fully lengthen or provide much relief to your tense spots. But holding a stretch for too long may lead to injury.
Some of the most common areas of our body that end up feeling tight are the neck, shoulders, back and buttocks. Here are four stretches — one for each of those trouble spots:
1. Trapezius Stretch
One of the biggest muscles in your neck is the trapezius. It helps stabilize your shoulder blades and extend your neck. For people with desk jobs, this muscle has a tendency to get very tight. You may have even heard people say they carry their stress in their necks: That’s the trapezius.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit with good posture in a supportive chair. Look straight ahead and let one arm relax down to your side. With your other arm, place your hand on top of your head and gently pull your head away from the side of the relaxed arm. Pull until you feel gentle tension in your neck. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds. Then repeat on the other side.
2. Pectoralis Stretch
Another muscle group that also tends to get tight is your pectorals, or the muscles of your chest. When these muscles are tight, they can cause your shoulders to become rounded and may contribute to poor posture. Here’s a stretch to open up your chest.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand in a doorway with your arms outstretched and bent at the elbows so that your forearms run along the edge of the door frame. Take a small step forward. You should feel a stretch across the front of your chest. Hold for 30 seconds.
3. Paraspinal Stretch
After a long day of sitting you may feel like you need to get up and stretch your back muscles. There’s a large group of muscles called the paraspinals, which run down your entire back. These muscles help stabilize your back during the day and usually end up get very tight and tired. This is a very relaxing stretch for your back and will also stretch your shoulders!
HOW TO DO IT: Kneel on the floor or on a yoga mat and slowly stretch forward so that your hands and arms are extended on the floor in front of you. Sink your butt back to your feet. Hold this stretch for 30 seconds and repeat at least two to three times.
4. Piriformis Stretch
One final muscle that gets very tight is called the piriformis muscle. It lies deep in your buttocks, underneath your glutes. It runs over your sciatic nerve, and if it’s tight you can feel a literal pain in your butt (and maybe hips too).
HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with both knees bent. Cross one leg over the other so that your foot is resting near your opposite knee. Use your hands to pull your top leg toward your opposite shoulder. You will feel a stretch in your buttock area. Repeat this stretch on the opposite leg.
Always remember that stretching should be relaxing. Hold the stretches with gentle tension for at least 30 seconds and be sure to breathe throughout the entire process!
About the Author
Kimberly Sawczyn is the clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy. She specializes in the evaluation and treatment of the spine as well as orthopedic and sports injuries. She earned her Bachelor’s and Masters degrees in physical therapy at Ithaca College. And she's certified by the McKenzie Institute USA and Kinesiotaping USA.