Please Note: While this article is very helpful in terms of outlining the benefits and types of stretching, it is important to remember that one should work with a physical therapist or trainer to develop the best individualized stretching program for their own needs.
What are the benefits of stretching?
- Increase range of motion and promote fluid movement.
- Improve flexibility by elongating soft tissues and muscles.
- Promote healthy healing from injury.
- Help relax muscles and reduce soreness.
Although the role of stretching in injury prevention is somewhat controversial, there is evidence that stretching can help reduce risk of muscular injury during exercise. This is especially true when stretching is combined with a proper warm-up.
When should I stretch?
There is evidence that supports stretching both prior to an activity and after as part of a cool-down routine. The hamstrings, calves, chest, and low back are areas that everyone can benefit from stretching on a daily basis. As we age, stretching becomes even more important in maintaining fluid movement and range of motion because our muscles begin to lose some of their natural flexibility.
- Stretch when muscles are warm! Stretching cold muscles can increase risk of injury. Whether you do a light cardiovascular warm-up prior to stretching or stretch at the end of your workout, muscles will be more pliable and you’ll notice you can stretch farther.
- Stretch within 15 minutes of activity, especially when participating in sports with uncontrolled dynamic movements (dance, tennis, basketball, martial arts).
- Stretching is not a warm-up. Warm-up should consist of performing the intended activity at a lower intensity for about 5-10 minutes before stretching.
What stretches should I do?
Stretches can be static (no motion), dynamic (involve motion), or a combination of the two. What is best for you depends on your current condition and what you are trying to achieve.
- Increase range of motion: Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), once used only in rehabilitation, is now a common technique used among healthy athletes as well. It is viewed as the most effective method to enhance range of motion.
- Improve flexibility: Dynamic stretches appear to be less affective than static stretching at increasing flexibility. A combination of static stretching and PNF is the best approach.
- Performance: Although good for flexibility, static stretching can negatively affect immediate physical performance among athletes. Static stretching induces what is called a “neuromuscular inhibitory response” that can actually weaken the straining muscle for up to 30 minutes. Dynamic stretching does just the opposite, inducing your muscles to perform. As a result, these stretching motions are currently the stretch of choice with regards to optimizing athletic performance and active flexibility.
- Rehabilitation: If you know what areas are problematic, make sure to give these muscles special attention. Specific stretches from fitness professionals can aid in recovery of an injury or reduce musculoskeletal pain. It is best to obtain guidance on such techniques.
How should I stretch?
There is no “one” good way to stretch. The technique for stretching varies greatly depending on the type of stretch you perform. The number of repetitions, length of holding a stretch, resistance and frequency all need to be tailored to the specific selection of exercises you are doing.
The Different Types of Stretching
- Ballistic uses the momentum of a moving body or a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its normal range of motion. This method does not offer as much benefit as other techniques and can lead to injury. e.g., jerky movements like bouncing to touch your toes
- Dynamic involves gradually moving parts of your body to the limits of your range of motion. They are usually done in sets of 8-12 repetitions. e.g., slow, controlled leg swings, torso twists, hand-walks, kicking buttocks with heels.
- Static involves stretching a muscle (or group of muscles) to its farthest point without pain and then maintaining or holding that position. These are held for at least 20 seconds and repeated 2-3 times. They are the traditional stretches most commonly used. e.g., quadriceps stretch, calf stretch, stretching to your toes.
- Active involves taking a position and then hold it there with no assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. This is in contrast to dynamic stretches where you do not hold the position. e.g., many positions found in Yoga are active stretches.
- Passive (relaxed, static-passive) is where you assume a position and hold it with assistance either from another part of your body or an apparatus. This type of stretching is great for post-workout cool down. e.g., using a doorway to stretch arms/pectorals, using a towel or band to hold leg stretches.
- Isometric (static-active) is a type of static stretching (no movement) that involves isometric contractions (tensing) of the stretched muscles to provide resistance. Isometric stretching is not recommended for children under 13 or those with joint weakness. These people are often flexible enough that the strong stretch produced by the isometric contraction has a much higher risk of injury. It is encouraged to precede any isometric stretch with a warm-up or dynamic strength training. e.g., “push-the-wall” calf stretch, have a partner hold your leg up high while you push toward the ground.
- PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation): This is currently the fastest and most effective way to increase range of motion and static-passive flexibility. It is a technique that combines passive and isometric stretching. The stretched muscle should be rested (and relaxed) for at least 20 seconds before performing another PNF technique. As with isometric, PNF is not recommended for children under 13. e.g., Hold-relax, hold-relax-contract, or hold-relax-swing.