Stretching exercises

Nancy Ferrari

Senior editor, Harvard Health

Because stretching cold muscles can lead to injury, it’s best to stretch after your muscles have been adequately warmed up — either at the end of your workout or after you’ve completed your warm-up. Stretching at the end of your workout can be a good way to cool down. Stretch several times a week for maximum benefit, and include stretches that work all major muscle groups. As you stretch, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Hold each stretch for 30 seconds.
  • Never bounce as you stretch.
  • Extend the muscle to the point where you feel mild tension and hold that position. Don’t extend the muscle to the point that you feel pain.
  • Don’t hold your breath. Breathe deeply and freely through your nose.

Calf stretch

Stretches the Achilles tendon and calf

Calf stretch

Stand in front of a wall. Put your hands against the wall with your elbows almost straight. Keeping your left knee slightly bent, step back a foot or two with your right leg, positioning the heel and foot flat on the floor. You should feel the stretch in your calf and Achilles tendon. If not, move your right leg back a bit farther. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

Starter’s stretch

For your thighs

Starter's stretch

Get in a sprinter’s starting position, with your rear knee on the floor and your front foot flat on the floor. Place your hands at the sides of your front foot. Gradually straighten your back knee as you lift up on your toes and bend forward. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch to the other side.

Thigh stretch

Stretches the front of the thigh

Thigh stretch

Stand in front of a wall so you can touch it for balance if necessary. Keep one leg straight while you bend your other knee and grasp your ankle to pull your heel up toward your buttock. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat.

Groin stretch

Stretches the inner thigh

Groin stretch

Sit on a mat with your knees bent and pointing outward, and your feet together. Draw your feet close to your body. Holding your shins or feet with your hands, bend your upper body forward and press your knees down with your elbows. Hold for 30 seconds.

William’s stretch

For your lower back

William's stretch

Lie on your back with both legs extended. Bring one knee up to your chest, pulling it with your hands as you curl your head toward your knee. Hold for 30 seconds. Switch to the other side.

Hamstring stretch

Stretches the back of the thigh

Hamstring stretch

Stand far enough behind a chair so that you can hold it while bending over at the hips until your torso is parallel to the floor. Try to keep your back and shoulders straight so that you feel the stretch in the back of your thighs. Hold for 30 seconds.

Cat stretch

For your upper back and shoulders

Cat stretch

Rest on your knees, then lower your head and reach forward with one arm and then the other. Both arms will be stretched out in front of you. Hold for 30 seconds.

Triceps stretch

Stretches the triceps and upper back

Triceps stretch

Bend your right arm behind your neck, pointing your elbow toward the ceiling. Grasp your elbow with your left hand. Pull the raised right elbow gently toward the left until you feel a mild stretch at the back of your upper right arm. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with the left arm.


Originally published Oct. 1, 2008; last reviewed April 26, 2011.

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