Most of us stretch wrong. Here’s how to improve your flexibility—safely.

We now know that stretching is key to staying limber and flexible. But did you know that it could also be dangerous?

Many people stretch improperly, overstressing muscles and even tendons in ways that lead to strains and sprains. An injury can come on gradually as a result of cumulative “insults” from performing a stretch a certain way over and over again. You don’t know you’re hurting yourself…until you’re really hurt.

Other people don’t stretch wrong—they just don’t stretch at all, or only once in a while. Many people focus more on cardiovascular exercise and weight training, yet often neglect stretching—until they get hurt. To benefit from a flexibility program, you need to practice it regularly, ideally every day.

As we age, stretching becomes even more important. Our bodies undergo changes that result in lack of elasticity. Women tend to be more flexible than men, but starting in their 50s, both genders start to lose flexibility and range of motion, especially in the shoulders and low back, which can lead to shoulder and back issues. The good news is that this age-related decline can be slowed through a regular stretching program.

By learning to stretch properly, you’ll maximize your mobility…greatly reduce the risk of pain and injury…perform better at any sport you engage in…and look younger. (One caution—if you’ve had a recent fracture, sprain, injury or surgery, or if you suspect that you have osteoporosis, speak to your doctor/physical therapist first.)

Here are common stretching mistakes that can hurt you—and how to steer clear of them…

HOLDING YOUR BREATH

One common stretching mistake is holding your breath as you hold a stretch. Muscles need oxygen throughout a stretch—plus, holding your breath can elevate blood pressure. Breathe slowly and consistently throughout each phase of a stretch—especially when you’re holding one.

Simple stretches such as shoulder rolls don’t require that you hold them, but most do. These stretches should be held for at least 20 seconds—and recent studies suggest that for older adults, 60 seconds is even better. Breathe throughout.

STRETCHING COLD

Not that long ago, we were instructed to stretch before playing sports when our muscles were “cold.” Now we know that’s a bad idea. Think of your muscles and tendons as taffy. Now imagine trying to stretch and bend cold taffy. It can snap. On a micro level, that’s like stretching a cold, tight muscle. Ouch.

Much better: Warm up for five minutes or more first before you do any stretch that you hold. Try light running, a few minutes in a steam room or sauna—or, if you’re home, a warm bath.

GETTING INTENSE

Too many people follow the old paradigm that the more intense the exercise, the better. They overdo it with weights, aerobics—and stretching. In my opinion, no pain, no gain is…insane. If you feel sore a few hours later, you overdid it.

Much better: When stretching, move slowly and gently, and stay within your comfort zone. You should feel mild tension in your muscles and joints. Don’t push past it. Listen to your body, especially your neck, back, shoulders and knees. If you have tightness or joint pain, take some time off, and if it continues, see your doctor or a physical therapist before it turns into a real issue.

GOING OLD SCHOOL—FAST AND BOUNCY

If you played a sport in high school, it’s time to unlearn some things you learned, including bouncing toe touches. These moves weren’t safe then and are even riskier now that you’re older. Those neck circles you started every gym class with? Terrible! They strain supporting ligaments and can lead to pinched nerves. That hurdler stretch where you sit with one leg out in front of you and the other bent behind you? It stresses the meniscus and the medial collateral ligament of your knee—an injury in the making. Windmill toe touches? No! Bending and rotating at the same time is a recipe for trouble.

Red flag: Avoid stretches such as the hurdler that make your knees twist or move in an unnatural position. Be careful about back bends that call for you to raise both hands over your head and lean back. That can pinch the facet joints of the spine.

Much better: Always keep knees “soft” (slightly bent) when stretching. When turning, move your body slowly, as a unit, and pivot your feet.

STRETCHING ONLY WHEN YOU EXERCISE

Chances are that if you stretch, you do so only before working out or playing a sport. Big mistake! To maintain flexibility, your muscles need to be worked just about every single day.

Much better: Think of stretching as part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth. You don’t need a designated area or even to wear gym clothes. Spend a few minutes doing a body-flexibility session daily, especially in high-risk areas such as the hamstrings, shoulders and lower back.

NOT BEING WELL-BALANCED

The body is designed with opposing muscle groups, and they need to be worked equally. Weight training can unbalance muscles, so you need stretching to get you back into balance. Example: If you do a movement such as a bench press that rolls your shoulders forward, you should do a stretch that pulls them back. My Golden Rule is, Do unto the front as you do unto the back, and do unto the left as you do unto the right.

Conversely, being too flexible can be a problem, especially if you don’t have muscles that are strong enough to support your joints. I once taught a dancer who kept dislocating joints because her muscles weren’t strong enough to keep her shoulders in place. It’s all about balance.

One final tip—enjoy your stretching session. It’s a great time to integrate the mind and the body. Ready to get started? Try 5 Do-Anywhere Stretches for Your Entire Body.