A Massage Therapist's 10 Favorite Stretches

By Cindy Williams, LMT

As a longtime massage therapist, I’ve come to think of myself as a sculptor.

When clients come in, I observe their patterns of movement and encourage their bodies to mold into new patterns. Massage therapists are trained to know where muscles connect and how they function, so when something is “off,” we attempt to guide the body back to a healthier pattern. 

The thing about patterns is they are not easy to permanently change. Just like any habit or pattern, consistent awareness and practice of a new way of being and moving are essential for lasting effects. This is why you might feel more mobile and pain-free right after a massage, but the old, tight, painful patterns return in a few days. It is vital that clients are involved in an ongoing process if the change is going to stick.

Stretching for Longevity

Some of the ways a massage therapist supports a client into a healthy, pain-free pattern of movement is by warming up the tissues with massage strokes, passively moving joints within their range of motion, and breaking up built-up connective (scar) tissue through directional pressure and friction in areas that are stuck.

Once areas are freed up, unless the new movement patterns areconsistently supported, they will return to their less-than-functional state of being. This is why stretches and exercises are essential for clients to perform between sessions for optimal results. Tight, stuck areas can only stay supple and free if they are kept moving.

Following are ways to stretch each area of the body and support your massage therapist’s work between sessions. Each stretch targets common areas of pain and stress, and is easy to perform. But first, a few things to keep in mind before you start:

  • It is safer to stretch muscles when they are warm. Support your muscles by warming up your body before stretches. Even a 5-minute brisk walk will do the trick. 
  • Your muscles are governed by your nervous system. A calm, focused system will more readily allow tight muscles to release and weak areas to engage. While stretching, inhale just before the stretch, then exhale as you stretch. As you hold the stretch, inhale and exhale slowly and deliberately. Let out a sigh, even! Let your system slow down. Breathing brings you into the present moment with your body.
  • Stretch until you feel resistance, then stop and breathe. That edge of resistance will likely melt a bit, so you can exhale and stretch a little further after a few breaths. Coax your body instead of forcing it. This brings more responsiveness.
  • Slightly pull in your belly in every stretch. Your core is your stabilizing center. It protects your low back and spine, no matter what movement you are performing—bending, lifting, twisting, or simply standing.

Jaw, Neck, and Shoulder

Stretch #1

Sitting in a chair with feet flat on the floor, start with your head upright, arms relaxed at your sides, shoulders back, belly engaged. Open your mouth wide, stretching the jaw muscles. Hold for 10 seconds and release. When the mouth is open, feel free to move your jaw gently side to side. Repeat 3–5 times.

Stretch #2

Beginning in the same position as the previous stretch, exhale as you allow your right ear to drop toward your right shoulder. Then, reach the fingertips of your left hand at a diagonal toward the ground. Direct an inhale to the area where you feel a pull, then stretch your fingertips further toward the ground. Do this for five breaths, and switch to the other side.

Stretch #3

Beginning in the same position as the previous stretch, exhale as you turn your chin toward your right shoulder. Be sure you draw the left shoulder back simultaneously, as it’s common for the opposite shoulder to pull forward as the neck rotates. Return to center and repeat on the other side.

Stretch #4

Still seated, place your hands on your knees. Be sure your pelvis and spine are upright (you will feel the bones of the base of your pelvis on the chair when you are in the correct position). Inhale while lifting through the top of the head, elongating the spine. Exhale while pulling the belly in and rounding the spine forward. You can pull on your knees to create more stretch in the upper back. Your pelvis will be tilted backward. Reverse this action by inhaling and bringing your chest forward through your arms, pulling the shoulder blades back and down, head lifting slightly. Your pelvis will be tilted forward. Exhale and round the back, inhale and reach your chest forward. Repeat with breath as many rounds as feels good.

Stretch #5

Lie on the floor facedown with your right arm stretched in a “T” position out to the side and your left leg bent in a comfortable position out to the side. Exhale as you push into the floor with your left hand and left knee. Place a pillow under your knee if it’s more comfortable. Roll your body onto your right side until your front right shoulder feels a stretch. You can enhance the stretch by slightly squeezing your right shoulder blade toward the spine. Allow your head to release toward the floor. Take several deep breaths, then exhale to return to center. 

After returning to center, continue rolling to the left until you are on your back. Allow the right arm to stretch across your chest. Using your left hand, grab your triceps and tug gently toward the left until you feel a stretch on the back side of the right shoulder. After a few breaths, roll back onto your stomach, and repeat the sequence on your left side.

Back and Hips

Stretch #6

Still lying facedown on the floor, using your hands as a pillow, bend your knees and flex your feet. Keep the upper body in place and windshield-wiper the legs and feet back and forth together from side to side. Switch the movement to both feet and heels swinging outward, then inward, crisscrossing back and forth slowly. As you get the hang of it, increase your momentum until the crisscross is quicker. You will begin to feel warmth in your feet and lower legs. Continue for a minute or two, or until you feel complete.

Forearm, Wrist, and Hand

Stretch #7

Facing a wall, stand at arm’s length with your palms facing the wall. Use a dry washcloth between your right palm and the wall so you can slide easily. With fingers spread wide, begin to rotate your hand in and out, keeping your palm in the same spot. Pay attention to your shoulders, ensuring the shoulder blades are pulling slightly toward each other and down the back. You can also face to the side or away from the wall, performing the same movement, to target all sides of the shoulder joint. Release and repeat with the left arm and hand.

Stretch #8

From a low lunge position with your left knee and right foot on the floor, press your hips forward, focusing on the stretch to the front of the left hip. Be sure your right knee doesn’t go past your right ankle. To counter stretch, pull your hips back until they are over the left knee, straighten your right leg in front with your heel on the floor and toes flexed in toward the knee, then slowly hinge forward from the hips over the right leg. Stretch the back of the leg only until resistance, then breathe and melt slowly further. Remember to engage your belly as you lift back up and switch legs.

Legs, Ankles, and Feet

Stretch #9

Standing with your feet flat on the floor, toes facing forward, begin to lift and lower the heels. Lift and lower 10 times. Point your toes outward in a “V” with your heels together, and begin to lift and lower again 10 times. Finally, point the toes inward, heels out, and lift and lower 10 times. This will target your lower leg muscles from multiple angles.

Stretch #10

Lower to your hands and knees and curl your toes under. Slowly sit back on your heels until you feel a stretch in your feet and toes. If you can, sit upright on your heels with your hands on your thighs. Breathe and stretch for 30 seconds. Release, point your toes, and sit back with the front of the feet stretched on the floor. Repeat with your toes curled under, then with toes pointed again, until your feet feel open and warm.

These 10 stretches will support your whole body and help reduce pain and tension when done several times a week. Your massage therapist can recommend additional stretches and exercises that are specific to your needs. Talk to your massage therapist at your next appointment about how you can work together to create new patterns for a mobile, pain-free body!

Cindy Williams has served the massage profession as a practitioner, school administrator, instructor, curriculum developer, and mentor since 2000. She enjoys the challenge of blending structure with creative flow to provide balance in her classroom, bodywork practice, and life.