7 Active Stretches You Should be Doing

Add these dynamic movements to your warm-up routine to prevent injuries, increase performance, and crush your workout.

6 Active Stretches You Should be Doing
Jena Cumbo.

Okay, your warm-up might not be the most exciting part of your workout — but it's still an important part of your fitness routine. After all, a dynamic warm-up with active stretching will prep your muscles, joints, and even your brain for the work that's ahead. Active stretching is also an opportunity to check in with your body and how you're feeling as you notice whether one side of your body feels a little tighter than the other, or whether that lingering calf injury is flaring up today.

Not sure where to start with active stretching? Here's more about the benefits of warming up before a workout, plus a guide to the best active stretching exercises to add to your pre-workout routine.

The Benefits of Active Stretching

First, a little refresher on the difference between active and passive stretching. In active (or dynamic) stretching, you'll increase flexibility through movement, rather than by simply holding a position as you would during passive stretching. For example, a passive stretch might be bending over to touch your toes, while an active stretch would be doing an inchworm, in which you start in a standing position, bend over and walk your hands out to a high plank, and walk your hands back in to return to standing. Both target the hamstrings, but in totally different ways.

As for the benefits of active stretching, the biggest one is that this type of movement will get your muscles ready for the work ahead. "Dynamic stretching helps warm and prepare the muscles for movement," says Jill Goodtree, an NASM-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor and RRCA-certified run coach. Adding active stretching to your workout helps your body transition from being sedentary to working hard and moving in all planes of motion.

Along those lines, dynamic stretching can also help prevent injury. Here's how: A dynamic warm-up with active stretches increases muscle temperature and blood flow, which improves your performance during exercise and reduces the risk of injury to muscles and tendons. That's because warm, loose muscles are less likely to rip or tear during a workout, and since your central nervous system is activated, you'll also be better prepared to react in case of an awkward twist, stumble, or near-fall (think: you'll be better prepared to catch your balance during a single-leg deadlift, rather than falling and potentially injuring yourself.

Best Tips for Active Stretching

While almost any kind of active stretching is a good idea, you can maximize your time spent warming up by being intentional about the stretches you use, says Goodtree.

"Dynamic stretching is best when it relates to the work that will be performed in the workout," she explains. "For example, if your workout involves deadlifts, bodyweight good mornings are a great dynamic stretch to practice your hip hinge before adding weight." So, consider the workout you have ahead of you, and choose your active stretches accordingly. For leg day, your active stretches might include bodyweight squats, good mornings, and lateral lunges, while a HIIT workout might call for inchworms done at a fast pace.

The 7 Best Active Stretches

The following active stretches will prep and prime your muscles to move smoothly, efficiently, and safely, says Goodtree. No equipment is necessary. Take your time easing into each movement. Remember, these movements are to get you ready for your workout — they're not the actual workout themselves, and you don't need to go as hard as you can with these exercises.

How to add active stretches to your workout routine: Try doing each movement for 30 to 60 seconds (per side, if appropriate) to create your own full-body warm-up. Or, choose a few of these active stretches that target the muscle group you're about to engage. The way you use these exercises will change based on your goals and your upcoming workout, so don't be afraid to adjust them as necessary.

Here, Goodtree demonstrates seven active stretching moves. Add these to your routine for more effective workouts, fewer injuries, and a better mind-body connection.

01 of 07

Squat with T-Spine Rotation

Why it works: Sitting and holding this low squat position opens up your hips, and adding in a rotation helps mobilize your thoracic spine (aka the part of your spine that's in the upper and middle part of your back).

A. Sit in a low squat position, with feet wider than hip-width apart and hips hinged backward. Aim to sit as low as possible without letting heels lift off the ground or rounding back. Chest stays open and gaze straight ahead. Extend arms and place fingertips on floor in between feet for stability.

B. Exhale and rotate upper body toward left while raising left hand toward the ceiling, keeping right hand on ground for support. Gaze at left hand during rotation.

C. Hold for a breath, then lower left hand down to ground. Repeat on opposite side.

02 of 07

Alternating Runner's Lunge with Rotation

Why it works: This active stretch is also known as the "world's greatest stretch," and for good reason: It engages every major muscle group in your body (especially your lower body — glutes, hamstrings, hips, and quads), and the twist helps your thoracic spine get warmed up as well.

A. Start in a high plank position, with wrists stacked under shoulders, shoulders in line with knees, and core engaged. Exhale and bring left leg forward to outside of left wrist, with left knee stacked over left ankle and bent at 90 degrees. Right leg stays straight with right knee off the floor.

B. Exhale and rotate toward left while simultaneously raising left hand toward the ceiling with left arm fully extended. Right hand remains on the ground for support and lower body doesn't move.

C. Bring left hand down to the inside of left foot. Step left foot back to return to high plank position.

D. Repeat on opposite side.

03 of 07

Clamshells with Hip Lift

Why it works: Clamshells require you to engage both your glute maximus — the biggest muscle group in your butt — and your glute medius, which sits underneath the glute maximus and is tougher to activate. The glute medius is key for stability and power; plus, adding in the hip lift forces your core to help stabilize your body as well.

A. Lay on right side with legs bent at a 45-degree angle and feet, ankles, knees, and hips stacked on top of each other. Allow right forearm to rest on the ground.

B. Engage core and glutes. Keeping feet together, lift right hip off the ground to bring left hip and obliques toward the ceiling. Simultaneously, lift left knee up as high as possible without rocking or shifting hips and/or pelvis.

C. Lower left knee to touch right knee while lowering right hip down to the floor. Repeat for a set amount of time or reps, then switch sides.

04 of 07

Plank to Downward Dog

Why it works: On its own, a plank activates your core, glutes, and shoulders. When you transition to downward dog, you'll get the added bonus of stretching your hamstrings and back.

A. Start in a high plank position, with wrists stacked under shoulders, shoulders in line with knees, and core engaged.

B. Exhale and lift hips up and back, gently straightening legs to move into downward dog.

C. Inhale and shift forward into high plank position. Repeat.

05 of 07

Scapular Push-Ups

Why it works: Scapular push-ups may not look like much, but there's plenty of work going on within the small range of motion. This active stretch improves shoulder stability by strengthening the serratus anterior muscle (which is on the side of your ribcage and is responsible for much of your shoulder movement.

A. Start in a modified plank position with hands directly under shoulders and knees on the ground slightly behind hips, toes resting on the floor. Body creates a long, straight line from head to back of knees. Gaze toward the floor.

B. Keeping back flat, core engaged, and arms locked straight, squeeze shoulder blades together, allowing chest to lower slightly to the floor.

C. Drive through palms to spread shoulder blades apart and return to the starting position.

06 of 07

Half-Kneeling Hamstring Stretch

Why it works: Stretching your hamstring from this half-kneeling position requires core engagement to help you maintain a flat back and stay upright. For even more active stretching, transition from this half-kneeling stretch to a deep runner's lunge on the same front leg.

A. Start in a kneeling position with left leg in front at a 90-degree angle, left knee stacked over left ankle. Right knee is on ground directly under right hip.

B. Walk left foot forward until left leg is extended. Exhale and lean forward toward left leg, keeping back flat and avoiding any rounding of spine.

C. Hold for a few breaths, then switch legs and repeat on opposite side.

07 of 07

Plank Walkouts

Why it works: Not only does this active stretching move (also known as an inchworm) loosen your hamstrings, but it also gets your heart rate up by challenging you to move quickly from an upright to a plank position. It's ideal for a dynamic warm-up before a cardio workout.

A. Start in a standing position with feet hip-width apart. Hinge forward at hips, bend knees, and touch both hands to the ground.

B. Moving one hand at a time, walk hands out away from feet until reaching a high plank position, palms directly under shoulders and hips in line with shoulders.

C. Hold for a breath, then walk hands back toward feet, lifting hips toward ceiling as hands get closer to feet.

D. Once hands are back in between feet, return to a fully standing position. Repeat.

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