In bodybuilding, stretching routines are a double-edged sword:
- Done right, stretching and mobility training leave you flexible, nimble, and feeling great. You’re warmed up, ready to smash new records.
- Done wrong, stretching slows you down. It wears out your muscles, and makes you weak. You can’t lift as heavy—and your muscles don’t get the stimulus they need to grow.
As a lifter looking to gain muscle and strength, this is something you need to be aware of. Doing the wrong kind of stretching will actually hurt your gains. The science has been out for many years (Kay and Blazevich 2012). But sadly, lots of trainers are still behind the curve.
Case in point: I googled “bodybuilding stretching routine” before I wrote this article. I found 6 articles on the first page of Google (the rest were videos and images). And 4 out of 6 (66%) still recommend stretches that interfere with strength gains (and muscle growth).
We’ll see which in this guide, and touch on the right and wrong ways to stretch when you’re trying to build muscle. Next, I’m going to draw on my 20 years’ experience lifting, coaching, and getting a PhD in exercise statistics to give you a bodybuilding-friendly stretching routine.
Ready? Let’s do it.
Stretching 101: static and dynamic
The two most common types of stretching are:
- Static stretching
- Dynamic stretching
With static stretching, you hold a position without moving. One of the most common is the “standing hamstring stretch” where you stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees slightly, and bend your torso forward until your hands reach the ground. Typically, static stretches are held for 30-60 seconds.
The other common kind is dynamic stretching. With dynamic stretching, you move through a full range of motion—and a bit beyond to really feel that stretch. More about this later.
Avoid this kind of stretching as a bodybuilder (it makes you weaker)
As a bodybuilder, if you stretch before your workouts, there’s data to suggest you should avoid holding a static stretch for more than 60 seconds.
In a systematic review, Kay and Blazevich (2012) found that the longer you hold a stretch, the more strength you lose! After pooling the results of 106 individual studies, they found:
- Less than 30 seconds: −1.1% ± 1.8%
- 30–45 seconds: −1.9% ± 3.4%
- 1–2 minutes: −4.2% ± 5.0%
- 2+ minutes: −7.0% ± 5.7%
As other researchers have pointed out, there seems to be a cutoff at the 1-minute mark (Chaabene et al. 2019):
“Short-duration static stretching (≤60 s per muscle group) trivially impairs subsequent strength and power activities (∆1–2%). Yet, longer static stretching durations (>60 s per muscle group) appear to induce substantial and practically relevant declines in strength and power performances (∆4.0–7.5%).”
So, you want to avoid static stretching for more than 60 seconds before your workouts. It wears out your muscles, and you won’t lift as heavy. In turn, your muscles will get an inferior training stimulus—and you won’t grow as fast.
Do the following routine instead.
A 7-exercise bodybuilding stretching routine for lifters looking to build muscle and strength
As we’ve seen, static stretching makes you weaker. Something I’m confident you’d rather avoid as a lifter. So, how you should stretch?
With dynamic stretching! In my 20 years’ experience lifting and coaching, I’ve found the best bodybuilding stretching routines usually include dynamic stretching and mobility exercises.
They work well as part of your warm-up. You can do them:
- Before you work out
- In the morning
- Just before going to bed
Or anytime that fits into your schedule. Without further ado, here’s the advanced routine I recommend:
Exercise 1: Overhead Shoulder Stretch
Exercise 2: “World’s Greatest Stretch”
Exercise 3: Inch Worm
Exercise 4: Down & Upward Dog
Exercise 5: Cossack Squat
Exercise 6: Crab Reach
Exercise 7: Scorpion Stretch
5 stretching guidelines for strength and size
How often and how many times you perform each stretch depends on your fitness level. At any rate, you should start slowly and increase gradually.
As a starting point, the following should be appropriate for a lifter aged 30 years with 3-5 years’ experience training with weights, but little experience stretching:
- 2-3 sessions a week (increasing to 3-5 over time)
- 1-2 sets per exercise (increasing to 2-5 over time)
- 5 reps per set (per side where appropriate) (increasing to 15-20 reps over time)
- 30-60 seconds between sets (decreasing to 15-30 seconds over time)
- Focus on increasing your range of motion—slowly and gradually
Training is both a science and an art, so you should take these guidelines with a grain of salt.
How much stretching you should really do depends on your age, fitness level, training experience, goals, and more. Get a qualified trainer to review your program, or let our smart workout app guide your progression.
How to avoid injury while stretching
As with most things exercise, the key is to stretch gradually. If you stretch too fast or too forcefully, you risk injuring yourself. Use slow and controlled movements, elongating the muscles and ensuring proper alignment throughout the entire stretch.
Another word of caution:
I created the above routine with natural bodybuilders in mind. If you’re just starting out lifting weights, it may be too hard for you. Instead, I’d recommend these beginner dynamic stretches.
You could also try our smart workout app Dr. Muscle. We’ve just updated it to include flexibility and mobility training—and it’s got 3 levels of stretching programs (beginner, intermediate, and advanced).
When you create your account, the app asks you a number of questions. Then, based on your experience, goals, and more, it creates a custom program for you. Depending on your profile and preferences, you can get the beginner, intermediate, or advanced flexibility and mobility program.
The app also updates your program every time you work out. It gives you new and challenging exercises and stretches automatically as you get in better shape. On autopilot!
So, whether you’re beginner or advanced, Dr. Muscle truly automates your stretching. It also automates daily undulating periodization, progressive overload, strength cycles, and more. All to help you build muscle faster.