Your Complete Guide to Stretching

Stretching can increase blood flow and improve flexibility. Here's how to get started.

Stretching is a key part of any fitness regimen—it prepares your muscles for the workout to come and lengthens them once the hard part is through. But if you're new to exercise in general, you might not know which stretches are best for your body (or, for that matter, how or when to perform them). Ahead, Kaley Hatfield, a certified fitness instructor, breaks down everything you need to know about building an effective stretching routine.

Get ready to stretch.

"To start your stretch, make sure you're hydrated and have your area set up," Hatfield shares, noting that you will need some room to transition through several poses. To get the most out of your stretches, you should be able to both lie supine and stand up straight with your arms extended without bumping into anything.

Start with a few simple positions.

Hatfield notes that there are several stretches that are especially easy for beginners to tackle, like the cat cow, butterfly, pike, and pigeon. To perform the first, get down on all fours and place your hands under your shoulders; your knees should be right under your hips. Take a deep breath as you tuck your chin into your chest; exhale as you lift your face towards the sky. "Focus on breathing in through your nose and out your mouth," she explains.

For the butterfly, sit on the ground and fold your legs so that your knees fall open, and the bottoms of your feet meet in front of you; round over your legs carefully to stretch your inner thighs. As for the pike? Sit on your glutes with your feet straight in front of you. Slowly, reach towards your toes while moving your nose towards your knees (whatever you can grab—your thighs, your knees, your ankles—is your baseline!). Lastly, the pigeon: After kneeling, place one fully-extended leg behind you and bend the other one on its side, directly in front of you. Then, stretch all the way over your front folded leg, Hatfield explains.

Build a foundation before attempting more advanced poses.

Once you have mastered the basics, Hatfield says you can work towards more advanced moves, which are a must for increasing flexibility. "Never force it," she cautions, noting that you should start small, stretching to the point of manageable discomfort (never pain) and increasing the depth of the movement over time. As for a few next-level moves to try? Half and wall splits, as well as the over-the-top straddle, are all good options. To attempt the half split, kneel with one leg folded behind you and one leg stretched entirely in front (your legs will form a check). The closer you can get to the ground, the better, says Hatfield, noting that, with practice, you should be able to "straighten your back leg until both legs are on the floor." Next, try the wall split, which involves resting on your back with your bottom against the wall and your legs lined straight up over your hips. "Let your legs open and fall to the floor, in an upside-down split position," she says. "Let gravity take them to the floor."

For the over-the-top straddle, start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Then, reach down and place your hands on the floor. "Allow your legs to continue to spread as your hips drop to the floor into a center split," she says. "Start with your hands on the ground, then elbows, then chest."

Remember to breathe.

Maintaining a rhythmic breathing pattern is essential during these movements—so fight the urge to hold your breath while stretching. "Always make sure you're breathing in through your nose and out your mouth," Hatfield says. "Letting oxygen into your muscles will help increase your range and flow!"

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