Can stretching help prevent injury? Experts say it depends on the kind of stretches we do and when we do them. Here’s a physiotherapist’s guide

We’ve done it: rushed to the gym before work (fist pump), changed into our activewear (high five), laced up our trainers (we deserve a medal) and went hard on the cardio and strength training, before getting on with our day. It’s only later on, when we feel the odd twinge here and there that we realise it might not have been wise to leave out stretching.

Turns out, when it comes to reducing risk of injury and getting the most out of our workouts, stretching could be a helpful addition to our weekly routine.

“Stretching before exercise can make the muscles more pliable and less likely to tear,” explains Katie Knapton, physiotherapist and founder of PhysioFast Online Virtual Physiotherapy.

“While doing it afterwards can be a natural way to cool down and potentially reduce muscle discomfort.” It can also help relax, improve flexibility and slow our heart rate down.

But it’s not as simple as we might think. The kind of stretches we do, what we do them with and how and when we do them are all key to injury prevention. Here’s how to get it right…

What are the benefits of stretching? 

In a culture of ultramarathons and squeezing an at-home HIIT session into our lunch hour, stretching often gets forgotten.

“Improving flexibility, alongside strength and mobility, are all factors of healthy living that are frequently overlooked,” says Katie.

“Yet many daily tasks rely on these functions and are absolutely essential to our quality of life – especially as we get older.

“Implementing specific stretches and exercises is key to maintaining healthy joint function long term.”

Maintaining joint range can help reduce the potential for injury

What types of stretching are there?

“There are different types of stretches: static (the most common type that you hold), dynamic stretching (a stretch that incorporates movement) and ballistic (fast and with movement),” explains Katie.

“Maintaining joint range can help reduce the potential for injury. However, it’s important to ensure that what you’re doing is a suitable routine with the right stretches used appropriately. This should take into account the individual and the activity they’re undertaking.”

When should you stretch? 

It’s all about the kind of physical activity we do (or don’t do). “This depends on the type of stretch you’re doing, why you’re stretching and whether it’s in preparation for an activity or not,” advises Katie.

“When it comes to the time of day, your muscles and joints are most tight in the morning and increase in flexibility throughout the day, peaking at around 7pm.

“Because muscles and joints are most flexible in the evening, you have a greater range of motion and the ability to stretch more deeply at that time of day.”

But it also depends on what we want to achieve from our stretch. For instance, stretching before exercise can help muscles become more pliable, but it shouldn’t be the sole part of our workout prep.

“Stretching should be performed when the body is warmed up (with an increased heart rate) and should ideally be specific to the activity you’re doing,” Katie tells us.

And if we’re doing it on the other side of exercise? “Some people report stretching after a workout can make their muscles feel looser post-workout and potentially reduce muscle pain and discomfort.” But Katie points out that the current research out there shows that this reduction is pretty small.

“However, if it feels good to do it, then it can be a natural way to cool down, especially after an intense workout. It may also help promote relaxation.”

You can achieve the most benefits with regular stretching

How long should you hold a stretch?

A static stretch, the type that’s held for a certain length of time, can be good to hold for at least 30 seconds and up to 60 seconds.

The NHS suggests incorporating them into cool downs after a workout to allow the body to relax and improve flexibility as the heart rate gradually comes down from a workout.

It can be good to aim for five minutes or more doing them, depending how you and your body feel.

How often should you stretch per week?

“You can achieve the most benefits with regular stretching. Try to stretch muscles at least two to three times a week,” Katie recommends.

It doesn’t have to be a big time commitment. “Even five to 10 minutes of stretching at a time can be helpful. Skipping regular stretching means that you may risk losing the potential benefits.”

How soon could you start seeing the benefits?

Good news – we may be able to see results within a relatively short period of time when done regularly.

“You can begin to notice a difference in how flexible you are within two to four weeks,” confirms Katie.

Are there any reasons why you might avoid stretching before exercise?

The jury – and science – is still out on this. “Some studies caution people away from stretching before workouts” says Katie.

“They suggest it can actually impede your body’s performance. According to research, [involving static stretching] runners can run more slowly, jumpers can jump less high and weight lifters can lift more weakly by stretching beforehand, without significantly ensuring against injury during their exercise. More recent studies have not been conclusive.”

So, what are we to do when even the medical world can’t agree on stretching? Katie believes it comes down to the type of stretches we do before a workout that matter. “I certainly wouldn’t encourage static stretching prior to a run, unless that’s what you’ve always done,” she says.

“An active warm-up including some dynamic stretches, such as kick outs and heel to buttock jogging, would be more appropriate and more activity specific.”

Anyone who should avoid it entirely? “Don’t stretch if you’ve had a recent injury, such as a muscle strain, ligament sprain or nerve injury or damage.

“Also, people who have underlying hypermobility (bendy joints) need to take care not to overstretch and cause problems with their joints.”

If you have an existing medical condition or haven’t exercised or stretched for a long time, then you should speak to your GP before starting any new forms of exercise or stretching regimes.

Can stretching prevent injury?

The simple answer is when done solo, no. “Stretching alone will not prevent sports injuries and there is no evidence for this,” explains Katie.

“Strength training and flexibility with graduated loading and specific training so the body can cope with the work you are planning to put it through – that’s the best way to try and prevent injury. Not stretching in isolation.”

But that doesn’t mean we should forego stretching completely – far from it. “It’s generally accepted that increasing the flexibility of a muscle-tendon unit promotes better performances and decreases the number of injuries” says Katie.

“Expanding your muscle fibres increases your flexibility and muscles that are fluid and pliable are less prone to injury.”

Start really slowly, incorporating your stretch as part of a global body routine

Can stretching cause injury?

Stretching should always be done with caution. “Overstretching can result in an injury, such as a strain or a sprain,” says Katie.

“Ease into your stretches slowly. You may feel slightly uncomfortable during a stretch, but it should never hurt. Don’t push your body past its limits and always stay in your natural range of motion.”

Don’t overdo it. “Bouncing or overstretching can be counterproductive,” explains Katie. “It may cause microtrauma or tears in the muscles or connective tissue. As a result, this can create a weakness that could surface later on. Certainly for someone who’s new to exercising, it would not be recommended.”

So, what should we do instead? “The advice would be to start really slowly, incorporating your stretch as part of a global body routine,” says Katie.

“The stretches I recommend [below] should be fine, but just have an awareness of a pull, even if it feels very limited.

“For maximum benefit, include some easy strengthening exercises, eg squats, lunges and/or wall presses.

“Start slowly and then stick to doing it three times a week, before gradually increasing.”

Stretching should be performed when the body is warmed up (with an increased heart rate)”

What kind of stretching exercises should you do before and after workouts?

It all depends on the activity you’re doing and your fitness level. If you’re looking to incorporate some dynamic stretching into your warm-up routine or static stretches to help you cool down, here are some basic stretches that Katie recommends from Rehab My Patient to help get you started.

Before your workout

“These dynamic stretches could be useful pre-activity, once your heart rate is raised,” advises Katie.

Leg swings

1. Hold on to a table with one hand, standing side on.

2. Swing your leg in front of you and then behind you in a controlled way.

Tip: This is an ideal way to warm up your leg and hip dynamically, but can also be used to gain more mobility in your hip joint.

Heel kicks

1. Standing with your feet together, kick the heel towards the buttock of the same leg.

2. Go back to your start position and repeat with the other leg. Then keep going.

Tip: Heel kicks are useful for warming up the hamstring muscle group at the back of the thigh.

After your workout

“The most common muscles to feel tight are the hamstrings, quadriceps and hip flexors,” says Katie. “These static stretches could be great to help you cool down post-workout."


1. Lying on your back, bring your hip to a 90° angle or further to the floor.

2. Keep some bend in your knee and then gently pull your leg towards your torso to feel a stretch behind your thigh (in the hamstring muscles). Repeat on the other side.

Tip: If you’re finding this a literal stretch, there are adjustments you can make in order to make it more accessible. Try sitting on the floor and place a towel or resistance band around the sole of your foot. Pull the toes towards you while straightening your leg. You'll feel a stretch down the back of the leg, in the calves and hamstrings.


1. Stand side-on to a table or anything you can comfortably hold onto with your nearest hand.

2. Lift your foot towards your bottom, holding the foot with your free hand. You should feel a stretch in the quadricep muscles at the front of your thigh. Repeat on the other side.

Tip: Try to fix your gaze on one spot ahead of you to help you balance.

Hip flexors

1. With a mat or pillow under your knee, start in a kneeling lunge position, with one foot on the floor and knee at a 90° angle to the body and the other knee on the floor.

2. Move your torso forwards to create a stretch to the front of your thigh and groin. Repeat on the other side.

Tip: If you want to make the stretch stronger, try tilting your pelvis backwards.