One of the most important components of a healthy and well-balanced exercise regimen is systematically overlooked by the vast majority of exercisers: stretching. Not only can stretching prevent injuries that could keep you out of the gym for weeks or months on end, but it also helps correct poor posture by lengthening tight, shortened muscles, and increases blood and nutrient flow to muscles which can help prevent muscle soreness.
Singers who do not regularly stretch after their workouts are often (unintentionally) promoting postural imbalances that could hinder deep and free breathing, among other consequences. Stretching is clearly important for the general public, but for singers, it becomes an even more crucial part of their exercise regimen.
So, when should you stretch? Frankly, the exercise science community is a bit divided on this topic, but those who are in favor of stretching post-workout seem to be winning. Obviously, before beginning a workout, one should properly warm up their body through practice moves and dynamic stretching (another topic for another day), but scientists are finding that full-blown, static stretching session before your workout may actually hinder athletic performance and promote injury.
That said, arguably the best answer for singers wondering when they should stretch is listen to your body. If the muscles you plan on using in a workout are feeling super tight, then I say go ahead and stretch them out, and/or use a foam roller to iron out the tension (again, another topic for another day). If the muscles you’re planning on working are sore from a previous workout, wait until they have properly repaired themselves and the soreness is gone before you work them again. Instead, work another muscle group that day and get your stretching in!
Now that we’ve covered stretching basics, here are some of my favorite stretches for virtually all of the major muscles in the body. I teach a one-hour class with these stretches; in the class, we hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds, and repeat each stretch two times. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that healthy adults stretch 2-3 days per week, and hold each stretch for 15-60 seconds for 2-4 repetitions. Throughout your stretching session, use your fantastic singer breath to help fuel your efforts by imagining that you’re breathing into the area of tension (ie, the muscles your stretching) and exhaling that tension out of your body. Every exhalation should help you get a little deeper into the stretch.
Warm-up move: Start with this light warmup. Inhale while bringing your hands overhead, and exhale while you bring your hands back to the starting position. I usually repeat this motion 5-10 times to warm up the body a bit.
Front of upper arm (Bicep) stretch: With your palms facing the back wall, point your thumbs down and reach back behind you. You will feel this stretch in your biceps, which are notoriously difficult to stretch. Be sure to actively reach behind you for the duration of the stretch; if you stop feeling the slight pull in your biceps, reach back further.
Back of upper arm (Tricep) stretch: Stretch your triceps by bringing one arm behind your head, and pull that elbow toward your head with the opposite hand.
Chest (Pectoralis) stretch: Interlace your fingers behind your rear-end and reach down and back with your hands. For a further stretch, utilize costal breathing by directing your breath into your upper chest (as opposed to diaphragmatic breathing, where you inhale and allow your belly to move).
Upper Back (Trapezius, Rhomboid) stretch: Interlace your fingers in front of you and reach forward with your hands. Allow your shoulders to roll forward and maintain extended elbows throughout the stretch.
Neck (Scalene) stretch: Place one hand on your head and gently apply downward pressure. Reach down and out with your other hand. Do not be aggressive with this stretch; perform this stretch lightly and consistently.
Shoulder (Deltoid) stretch: Take one hand and place it on your opposite side. Make a “chicken wing” with the other arm, and lean your head toward the “chicken wing.” This stretch will also stretch your neck (sternocleidomastoid) a bit.
Middle/Lower Back (Middle/Lower Trapezius, Erector Spinae) stretch: Bring your hands behind your thighs and arch your back up toward the sky. Be sure not to let your hands slip apart!
Calf (Gastrocnemius) stretch: Separate legs to a wide V stance and bend the front knee, while keeping the back leg straight. Point both feet in the direction to which you’re facing. This will stretch the major muscle in the calf, the gastrocnemius, in the back of the lower leg. If you need a lighter stretch, bring your back leg forward a bit to make a narrower V; if you need a deeper stretch, bring the back leg back farther to make a wider V.
Deep Calf (Soleus) stretch: From the previous position, bring the back leg forward to make a narrow V and bend both knees slightly. This will stretch the flat muscle underneath the gastrocnemius in the calf, called the soleus. You will feel this stretch originate at the Achilles tendon on the back of the rear foot and extend up the back of the leg. Feel free to adjust until you find the ‘sweet spot.’
Hip (Adductor, Glute) stretch: Starting with your legs wider than shoulder width apart, squat down and place your elbows on your inner thighs (note: be sure that your elbows are not placed on your knees, but rather, are on the meaty part of your inner thigh). Press out with your elbows to get a powerful and challenging stretch!
Standing Back of Thigh (Hamstring) stretch: This is a three phase stretch. Starting with your legs in a wide V, hinge at the hips and reach for the ground. Be sure to keep your legs straight, as bending your knees will cause you to lose the hamstring stretch. Hold, then heel-toe your feet closer together to make a narrower V, and reach down and hold once more. Finally, heel-toe your feet all the way together and reach down toward your toes.
Seated Back of Thigh (Hamstring) stretch, pt. 1: Like the previous stretch, you can perform this sequence in three phases: narrow V, wider V, and widest V. To get a nice side stretch, reach one hand overhead and grab your foot with the other arm. Then fold over the leg and reach your forehead toward your big toe. Repeat on the other side, and repeat both sides in all three positions.
Seated Back of Thigh (Hamstring) stretch, pt. 2: From the previous position, reach your hands forward and aim to get your forehead toward the ground. Don’t forget to use every exhale to get you even a centimeter deeper into the stretch! Perform this stretch in all three phases of the previous stretch (narrow V, wider V, widest V).
Cat-Camel Motion: Notice that I didn’t call this one a stretch. The goal here is not to see who can arch their back farther in either direction. Instead, this motion is intended to help relieve lower back pain. Many of my group fitness clients suffer with lower back pain on a regular basis, so I always throw this one into my stretch classes. Slowly arch your back between the two positions, and aim to make the motion between the two positions as fluid as possible.
Variations on Child Pose (Lower Back, Latissimus Dorsi, Posterior Deltoid, Teres m.m., Side Obliques): Start in the seated position with knees together, then bend over and reach forward. Utilize diaphragmatic breathing to get a powerful lower back stretch; since your belly is on your legs and thus can’t move very much, you will have to release into your lower back to take in a deep breath. Amazing how we can use the singer’s breath to enhance a stretch! Hold, then walk hands to one side while keeping the lower body stable to get a powerful side stretch. Repeat on opposite side.
‘Cobra’ stretch (Abdominal wall): Start lying down, and place your hands flat on the ground below your shoulders. Press up and extend your arms to stretch your abdominal wall. For an further stretch, utilize diaphragmatic breathing in this position. If this stretch is too intense, feel free to bend your elbows.
Front of Thigh (Hip Flexor) stretch: Begin with one leg in front of you at a 90° angle, back leg on the ground behind you. In this lunge position, lean toward your front knee. If this feels good, come up to a full lunge by bringing the back knee off the floor. Be sure to keep that back leg straight! In either position, squeeze your glutes for a further hip flexor stretch.
Single Back of Thigh (Hamstring) stretch: Starting with one leg extended in front of you and the opposite knee on the ground, lean back toward your back heel to get a powerful single leg hamstring stretch in the extended leg.
‘Pigeon’ stretch (Hip Flexor, Glute, Piriformis): This is probably my favorite stretch of all time! Start by bringing one leg across your body; your lower leg should be perpendicular to the rest of your body. You can either stay up on your hands, come down to your forearms, or reach your hands out in front of you.
Seated ‘Figure 4’ stretch (Glute, Piriformis): Starting in the seated position with both legs out straight, cross one leg over the other and wrap the opposite arm across that knee. Lightly reach behind with your other arm to get a powerful glute stretch.
Lying ‘Figure 4’ stretch (Glute, Piriformis): The lying Figure 4 stretch is merely a variation on the previous stretch. Start lying flat on your back, and bring one ankle to the opposite knee. Wrap your hands below that same knee and pull back on your thigh, bringing your legs off of the floor.
Inner Thigh (Adductor) stretch: Start in the seated position with your feet together. Inhale, then fold over as you exhale. Aim to get your head as close to your feet as possible.
Front of leg (Quadricep) stretch: Lie on one side and grab the ankle of the top leg. Pull your heel towards your butt and hold.
Lying Trunk Twist (Latissimus Dorsi, Oblique) stretch: Lie flat on your back with your hands out to either side of you and your legs up, knees in a 90° angle. Rotate your legs to one side of your body. Try to keep your knees together (as opposed to letting the top knee sink backwards) and try to keep both shoulders on the floor, or as close to the floor as you can get them. Hold, then rotate knees to the other side.