Stretching and Flexibility Exercises for Athletes

female and male runners stretching outdoor.

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Stretching and flexibility go hand in hand with sports for a variety of reasons. Stretching not only feels good, but it helps an athlete maintain an appropriate and balanced range of motion in specific joints.

Stretching is a way of actively increasing your range of motion and thereby increasing your flexibility.


Flexibility refers to the ability to move joints through their entire range of motion, from a flexed position to an extended position.

The flexibility of a joint depends on many factors including the length and suppleness of the muscles and ligaments and the shape of the bones and cartilage that form the joint. Flexibility can be genetic, but it can also be developed by stretching.

Flexibility is an important component of fitness and exercise tends to increase the amount of flexibility in a joint. Flexibility is also specific to the type of movement needed for a sport so it is more important for some sports than others.

Cyclists, for example, require less hip flexibility than hurdlers and swimmers need more shoulder flexibility than runners.

Stretching and Flexibility Guidelines

Stretching can have a variety of benefits if it's done correctly. Review the following tips before you start any stretching routine.

  • Stretch safely: Always follow the safe stretching guidelines to prevent injuries.
  • Perform static stretching: This means you hold a stretch for about 30-60 seconds at a time and don't bounce or overstretch.
  • Stretch after you warm up: Research shows this is the best way to improve range of motion. However, this is most beneficial for activities that require a greater range of motion.
  • Perform a dynamic warmup: Before your workouts to make sure your muscles are warm.
  • More isn't better: Keep in mind each joint has an ideal range of motion, and more flexibility isn't always better.
  • Balance is key: To maintain good muscle balance, stretch tight muscles and strengthen weak ones.
  • Warm muscles stretch better: Avoid over-stretching or stretching cold muscles.

Stretching Exercises for the Upper Body

Use these stretches to target specific areas of the upper body:

Stretching Exercises for the Lower Body

Use these stretches to target specific areas of the lower body (additional calf and IT stretches below):

Stretching Exercises By Sport

Here are some basic stretching routines for athletes who play a specific sport:

Injury-Specific Stretching Routines

Here are some sample stretching routines for athletes who have specific injuries:

Types of Stretches

Improving flexibility is done mainly by performing stretching exercises. The most common forms of stretching exercises are static, sustained stretching exercises that are slow and controlled.

Static stretches are thought to be safe for most people. They involve a slow, gentle stretch of the muscle that is held in a lengthened position for 10 to 60 seconds and repeated about three times.

Another type of stretching exercise is called dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching involves gradual increases in your range of motion and speed of movement with a controlled swing (not bounce) that reach the limits of your range of motion in a controlled manner.

You never force this type of stretch. Examples of dynamic stretching are slow, controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists.

Dynamic stretching exercises improve flexibility required in most sports and are often performed after a warmup before aerobic exercise training. Dynamic stretching exercises include 10 to 12 repetitions of the movement.

Ballistic stretching uses momentum in an attempt to force a joint beyond its normal range of motion. Bouncing-type stretches are ballistic and very different from dynamic stretching because they are trying to force a greater range of motion.

Ballistic stretching is not recommended because there is an increased risk of injury from overstretching the muscles, tendons, or ligaments.

How to Increase Flexibility

Before stretching, it's essential to warm up the muscles and joints. Stretching cold, tight muscles can lead to injury, so perform gentle joint rotation exercises and an easy aerobic exercise first.

Joint rotations are done by working head to toe using small, slow circles (clockwise and counterclockwise) at every joint until they all move smoothly and efficiently. You can also do some marching or even jumping jacks to raise your core temperature and increase your circulation before you stretch.

For a stretch exercise to improve flexibility, it needs to target the specific joint and provide enough stretch to the muscles and ligaments over time to adapt to a new, increased range of motion.

This means that when you stretch, you need to feel the tightness and slight burning sensation that comes from going slightly beyond your normal range of motion. By doing so, you will develop a new range of motion over time.

It is vital to avoid over-stretching the muscles and causing an injury or muscle strain. The recommendation is to stretch to the point of mild discomfort but not to the point of pain.

To develop long-term improvements in flexibility, stretch every other day for at least six weeks. However, when you stop using or stretching this new flexibility, you are likely to lose the gains you made.

Benefits and Myths

As an athlete, consider that overall flexibility is less important than having the proper flexibility for your sport. Research shows that the relationship between flexibility and injury risk is misunderstood.

Having more flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean fewer injuries, and an athlete with poor flexibility isn’t more likely to get injured. The key is to have the proper flexibility for your sport, so you can easily move through the range of motion without straining muscles.

In fact, research also supports the idea that performing a proper warmup before exercise is far more likely to help reduce injuries—warm up by lightly exercising the major muscle groups to be used in your sport. You can also warm up with marching, arm circles, jumping jacks, or starting your sport at a very slow pace.

If you lift weights, it’s essential to stretch, and the best time is right after a workout. Static stretching of fatigued muscles can increase flexibility and improve muscle building. Static stretching helps loosen muscles, removes lactic acid, and prevents the muscle tissues from healing at a shorter length after a heavy workout.

Can You Be too Flexible?

The muscles and ligaments around a joint can become too flexible. Extreme flexibility may be due to loose ligaments and muscles, which may offer less joint support and may even increase the risk of injuries such as joint dislocations. Excessive flexibility can be just as harmful as not enough.

A Word From Verywell

You will get a variety of advice from coaches and trainers on when and how you should stretch, many times reflecting tradition rather than the current research. While stretching can increase your range of motion and flexibility, it may not have all of the purported benefits for your sport or activity.

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.