Stretching is an integral part of any well rounded fitness program. It helps increase your flexibility, which then helps you to move efficiently and safely. Flexibility is measured by assessing the range of motion (ROM) through a joint or series of joints. If our ROM is inadequate for proper movement patterns, especially those involving an external load like lifting weights in the gym or lifting luggage while traveling, then the body becomes susceptible to injury.
There are two types of stretching that have been proven effective and are most commonly used by fitness professionals:
- Static stretching is the stretching most people are familiar with, and involves slowly easing into a stretch position by applying a low force and holding the end ROM for 30 seconds.
- Dynamic stretching involves actively moving joints through the ranges of motion required of the individual in training or sport, with very little pause in movement.
Regular static stretching is useful as a means to increase or maintain one’s flexibility. However, athletes and people who exercise at a very intense level should reserve static stretching for the cool down phase of training or competition, as it can inhibit maximal muscular performance for a short period of time and hasn’t been shown to reduce the likelihood of injury prior to physical activity (1).
On the other hand, if you fall more into the “general fitness” category (i.e., you’re not training for a sport or practicing high intensity exercise) and you enjoy doing some static stretches before physical activity, feel free to continue to do so-especially if you’re especially inflexible and/or you aren’t concerned with maximal muscular performance.
Contrary to static stretching, dynamic stretching is not used to improve long-term flexibility so much as to prepare the body for high-intensity, complex sport and training specific movements. Dynamic stretching should progress from low-speed and simple movements to high-speed and more complex movements. Because dynamic stretching helps warm muscles up, it is sometimes referred to as dynamic warm-up.
It should be noted that hyper flexibility can put someone at risk of injury just as much as inflexibility can. Therefore, hyper flexible individuals may opt not to stretch through any ROM considered excessive for the types of physical activity in which they regularly participate. If you aren’t sure what level of flexibility you’re at, consult with a strength and conditioning specialist who can measure your flexibility and advice you on what forms of stretching are safe and appropriate for you.
- Knudson D. Program Stretching After Vigorous Physical Training. Strength and Conditioning Journal 32: 55-57, 2010
Jeramiah Jordan is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and a Certified Exercise Physiologist, with a Bachelor of Science degree in Exercise Science. He is a personal trainer at HSS Spine & Sport.