The 21 Best Stretching Exercises for Better Flexibility

Stretching may not be the most exciting part of working out, but doing flexibility work is just as important for a well-rounded fitness routine as strength and cardio work. Incorporating some stretching exercises into your workout schedule will help you improve flexibility, reduce tightness, and ultimately, make your workouts more efficient and safe.

"Tight muscles can cause undue strain on the neighboring joints during normal daily function, or they themselves can become injured," Sasha Cyrelson, D.P.T., clinical director at Professional Physical Therapy in Sicklerville, New Jersey, tells SELF. As we age, our muscles get shorter and less elastic, she adds. "We need to take an active role in maintaining and improving the length of our muscles so we can continue to enjoy our abilities without pain."

It's true that stretching is neither glamorous nor hardcore, and it probably won't give you the same rush that a run or HIIT class will. "It is uncomfortable and it takes time, so people don’t like to do it," Cyrelson says. "However, you can’t just do strength training and cardio without putting yourself at risk for injury and pain." By doing a ton of work that contracts the muscles (which shortens them) and never stretching (lengthening) them, your muscles will end up imbalanced. Imbalances in the body increase your risk for injury because they can cause some muscles and joints to overcompensate for other ones that are too tight to engage properly. This leads to strains and discomfort.

Also, when your muscles are loose and stretchy, they're less restricted. This allows you to move them wider a full range of motion (ROM). For example, greater range of motion in your hips and knees will allow you to sink deeper into a squat. Ultimately, having a greater ROM will make it so you're able to do more exercises—and do them properly.

Charlee Atkins, C.S.C.S., instructor at Soul Annex in New York City and creator of Le Stretch class, tells SELF that she likes to use the word mobility instead of flexibility to hammer home how important stretching is for everyday life. "For me, it's about about daily things that become harder the older you get, like bending down to tie a shoe, walking upstairs, picking your kid up from the floor, or even just getting up off the couch." Improving your mobility makes these daily activities easier—"you can move more freely," Atkins says.

Luckily, improving your flexibility and mobility isn't hard. It just takes a little time. Try adding the stretches for flexibility that Atkins demos below into your routine to help relieve muscle tension and increase mobility—so that you can move through both the gym and life more freely.

Standing Hamstring Stretch
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1. Standing Hamstring Stretch

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms by your sides.
  • Exhale as you bend forward at the hips, lowering your head toward floor, while keeping your head, neck and shoulders relaxed.
  • Wrap your arms around backs of your legs and hold anywhere from 45 seconds to two minutes.
  • Bend your knees and roll up when you're done.

Stretches neck, back, glutes, hamstrings, calves

Piriformis Stretch
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2. Piriformis Stretch

The piriformis muscle is a deep internal hip rotator, located on the outside of the butt. Its primary role is external rotation, Atkins says. "Deep internal rotators, while small, produce a lot of the movement at the hip and are often overlooked." Since the piriformis crosses over the sciatic nerve, "if it is tight, it can result in sciatic nerve irritation," Cyrelson says. "Stretching this muscle can prevent potential future sciatica, or help treat it."

  • Sit on the floor with both legs extended in front of you.
  • Cross your right leg over your left, and place your right foot flat on the floor.
  • Place your right hand on the floor behind your body.
  • Place your left hand on your right quad or your left elbow on your right knee (as shown) and press your right leg to the left as you twist your torso to the right.
  • If the spinal rotation bothers your back, take it out and simply use your left hand to pull your right quad in and to the left.

Stretches hips, back, glutes

Lunge With Spinal Twist
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3. Lunge With Spinal Twist

Atkins notes that this stretch is commonly referred to as the World's Greatest Stretch (WGS) in the fitness community. And for good reason: "It's essential to help with posture-related pain or for people who sit for prolonged periods of time," says Dan Giordano, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., cofounder of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York City and Seattle. "It helps open your hips and improve thoracic (mid-back) mobility," he tells SELF.

  • Start standing with your feet together.
  • Take a big step forward with your left foot, so that you are in a staggered stance.
  • Bend your left knee and drop into a lunge, keeping your right leg straight behind you with your toes on the ground, so you feel a stretch at the front of your right thigh.
  • Place your right hand on the floor and twist your upper body to the left as you extend your left arm toward the ceiling.
  • Hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Stretches hip flexors, quads, back

Triceps Stretch
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4. Triceps Stretch

  • Kneel, sit, or stand tall with feet hip-width apart, arms extended overhead.
  • Bend your right elbow and reach your right hand to touch the top middle of your back.
  • Reach your left hand overhead and grasp just below your right elbow.
  • Gently pull your right elbow down and toward your head.
  • Switch arms and repeat.

Stretches neck, shoulders, back, triceps

Figure Four Stretch
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5. Figure Four Stretch

"This specifically stretches the piriformis and iliopsoas muscles (essentially your hip rotator and flexor muscles) and the IT band. Because of this and the passive nature of the pose, it is an excellent and gentle approach to helping relieve symptoms associated with sciatica and knee pain," John Murray, yoga instructor and co-founder of Lyons Den Power Yoga, tells SELF.

  • Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Cross your left foot over your right quad.
  • Lift your right leg off the floor. Grab onto the back of your right leg and gently pull it toward your chest.
  • When you feel a comfortable stretch, hold there.
  • Hold for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
  • Switch sides and repeat.

Stretches hips, glutes, lower back, hamstrings

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