Going on a Walk? Here Are 7 Dynamic Stretches to Do First, Physical Therapists Say
If you're the kind of person who preps for a walk by throwing your shoes on and heading out the door, it may be time to rethink your routine. "Many people often skip stretching before walking because they consider walking to be a light or minimal intensity workout," physical therapist Chanha Hwang, PT, DPT, CHC, founder and owner of Fatherly Health and Wellness LLC, told POPSUGAR. "The reality is that stretching before walking allows muscles to warm up, which increases range of motion and flexibility."
And not just any kind of stretching, either. Rather than just holding a stretch for 30 seconds or a minute (aka static stretching), experts recommend doing dynamic stretching, which involves more active movement. Dynamic stretching is meant to warm up your muscles, not just stretch them out, which can actually lead to damage without proper preparation. "Think of our muscles similar to a rubber band," said Dylann Craig, PT, owner of Impact Physical Therapy. "If you stretch them while they are cold, they are less pliable, but when heated up they are much more elastic." Dynamic stretching improves blood flow to your muscles, helps to ease movement in your joints, and is an all-around better way to prepare your body for dynamic movements like walking, said Helene Darmanin, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder of Mama Bear Physical Therapy.
So before you hit the roads, the trails, the treadmill, or wherever you're getting your steps today, take a few minutes to get your muscles warm and loose. Ahead, check out seven dynamic stretches that physical therapists recommend adding to your pre-walk routine to stay pain- and injury-free.
Active Hamstring Stretch
"Hamstrings are typically tight," which can affect leg and back motion, said Lucinda Bouillon, PT, PhD, associate professor and director of the doctor of physical therapy program at the University of Toledo. She recommended this hamstring stretch to loosen the muscle.
- Start standing with your feet hips-width apart.
- Shift your weight to your right leg and take a small step forward with your left leg. Keep your left foot flexed, so your toes are pointing back towards your body and only your heel is on the ground.
- Keep your back flat and your chest lifted as you reach your left hand toward your left toes. Grab your toes if you can, or rest your hand on your knee or shin. You can also bend your left leg slightly if you're extra tight. You should feel a gentle stretch in the back of your thigh as you hold the position for a moment.
- Tighten your core as you straighten back up to standing. Step back with your left foot to return to the starting position.
- Switch sides and repeat to stretch your right hamstring.
This dynamic lunge stretches the rectus femoris, "a hip flexor and quad muscle," Dr. Darmanin said. This muscle can tighten up from sitting and cause back, hip or knee pain, she said, so it's a good idea to loosen it up before you start walking.
- Start standing with your feet hips-width apart. Step your right foot forward and lower down slightly into a high lunge, so your knee doesn't quite form a 90-degree angle. Your left leg should be extended straight out behind you, far enough back so that your left heel is lifted off the ground. Ensure that your core is tight and your spine is straight with your hands on your hips. This is your starting position.
- Hold your torso and right (front) leg still as you bend your left knee slightly, lowering it but not all the way to the ground.
- Straighten your left leg again to return to the starting position.
- Repeat, making sure to do equal reps on both sides.
Standing Quad Stretch
Dr. Hwang recommended this as one of the best stretches you can do before walking. It targets your quadriceps muscle on the front of your thigh.
- Start standing with your feet together and knees touching. If you need help balancing, hold a chair or wall for support.
- Bend your left leg to bring your left foot up behind you, then grab your foot with your left hand and gently pull it toward your butt. Keep your chest lifted and core tight. Don't worry about how close your foot is to your butt; focus on the stretch on your left quad.
- Hold for a few seconds, then release your left foot with control and place it on the floor.
- Take a step forward and switch, repeating on your right leg.
IT Band Stretch
Your IT band, which runs along the outside of your thigh, can also get tight from sitting, especially cross-legged, said Samantha DuFlo, PT, DPT, PRPC and RRCA-certified running coach. "Doing a standing ITB stretch can help prevent some common complaints from walkers and runners," she said.
- Start standing with your feet together. Cross your left foot in front of your right, ensuring the outer edge of your left foot is touching the edge of your right (or as close as you can get.)
- Bend in half at the waist and reach for the floor, keeping your core tight and back flat. Press your right big toe into the floor to help you balance.
- Touch your right hand to the ground right by your left foot, or as close as you can get — it's fine to place your hand on your foot, shin, or knee if you can't reach. Then twist your upper body to the left, reaching your left arm to the ceiling. You should feel a gentle pull on the outside of your right leg. Hold for a few seconds.
- Uncross your legs and switch legs to stretch the other side.
Rocking Wall Calf Stretch
"Calves are the most important muscle group for propelling us forward in walking," Dr. Darmanin said. This dynamic calf stretch improves the flex of your ankle joint (the movement of pointing your toes toward your nose), which is a range of motion we can lose if we sit too much, she explained. And when that happens, "we are more likely to twist an ankle or have knee or back pain," she said.
- Start with your hands pressed flat against a wall, arms fully extended.
- Step your left leg back as you bend your right leg at the knee, coming into a high lunge. Keep your hands pressed against the wall, extending your left leg with your heel slightly off the ground.
- Rock your weight forward. Keep your right heel on the ground and push your right knee forward as much as possible, allowing your left heel to lift off the ground as you stretch your left calf.
- Rock back into the starting position.
- Repeat, making sure to do equal reps on both legs.
Dynamic Spinal Twist
This relaxing stretch targets your upper back, another area that can get tight from sitting and looking at screens, Dr. Darminin said. When that happens, "motion becomes concentrated in only the neck and lower back, causing stress in those areas, which can also cause discomfort in the hips and shoulders," she explained. Loosening this area first can help you stay comfortable and pain-free on walks.
- Start lying on your right side on the ground. Bend your knees into the fetal position and stretch both of your arms out in front of you on the ground, with your right arm on bottom.
- "Open" your left arm like a book, lifting it up and over your torso and allowing your chest to rotate open at the same time. Place your left arm on the ground on the left side of your body, so that both arms are reaching out to the sides, and turn your head to the left. Don't rotate your hips with your torso; do your best to keep your hips stacked on top of each other, not allowing them to rotate open with your chest.
- Hold here for a couple seconds.
- "Close" your arms, rotating your chest back to the right to return to the starting position.
- Repeat, making sure to do equal reps on both sides.
Standing Side Bend
A simple side bend helps to stretch all the muscles in your side, targeting the lats in your back, the muscles in your ribs, and your outer hip and leg muscles, said Chad Walding, DPT, physical therapist and co-founder of NativePath. Your side muscles are getting a workout when you walk, so you want to make sure they're warm and loose first.
- Stand with your feet hips-width apart and core pulled toward your spine. Lift both hands over your head and interlace your fingers with your palms toward the ceiling.
- Inhale, straightening your spine toward the ceiling.
- Keep that length as you exhale and lean to the left, making sure your hips and chest stay facing forward. Keep your core tight as you lean over.
- Gently pulse your arms back toward the center and the ceiling, increasing the stretch in your right side. Repeat the pulse a couple times.
- Inhale as you straighten and return to the starting position.
- Switch sides and repeat.