Just because it doesn’t make you skinny (cardio) or ripped (strength training), doesn’t mean you don’t need it. It’s results appear to go unseen, but they wont go unfelt. The benefits of stretching are far-reaching and powerful.
Stretching can improve the range of motion of your joints, relax muscles, boost performance, assist good posture, and reduce the risk of injury.
Yes, stretching can get a little confusing. But only because there are several different ways of stretching. Most of us are at a loss as to what type of stretches should be done when and for what. Where some types of stretches are good for getting your body ready for exercise, others are better for helping your body recover from exercise, or are great for flexibility-specific training and relaxation. Once you know what’s what, you’ll never want to skip your stretching routine again.
We set the record straight, so you know what form of stretching is best for your goals and circumstances. Use the right type of stretching at the right time and you’ll reap massive benefits from your flexibility training.
The force behind the stretch
There are two ways to exert force to create the stretch – passive and active.
- A passive stretch uses an external object or force to take you into a stretch, for example using a door frame, another person, body weight, gravity or leverage. You relax the muscle that you’re trying to stretch and rely on the force from the external object to hold you in place. You don’t have to work hard to stretch, as the external object is doing the hard work, but on the downside there’s the risk that the external force might be stronger than you are flexible, resulting in possible injury.
- In an active stretch, you use your muscles only to move yourself into a stretched position, e.g. clasping your hands behind your back and pushing your elbows to the rear to stretch your chest. So you relax the muscle you’re aiming to stretch and contract the opposing muscle to initiate the stretch. While active stretching is, as its name suggests, active and calls for quite a bit of effort, the risk of injury is also lower. You are controlling the force of the stretch with your own (and limited) muscular strength, as opposed to using external force.
It really doesn’t matter too much whether you perform active or passive static stretches, as the outcome is the same. The main differences are the risk of injury, which is lower for active stretching, and the ease of stretching. If you are going to hold a stretch for an extended period of time, passive stretches are often more comfortable, as they require less effort.
Static stretches are the most recognizable form of flexibility training and is what most of us associate with stretching. For many years, static stretching was how everyone stretched – before, during and after exercise. Not any more.
There are two types of static stretching:
- static stretching to maintain current flexibility (static maintenance)
- static stretching to develop and increase flexibility (static developmental)
1. STATIC MAINTENANCE
Good for: Post-workout cool-down
Why: To maintain general flexibility after exercising
If your flexibility is already good and you just want to ensure you don’t lose it, for example after a workout to offset adaptive shortening, maintenance stretching is for you. A maintenance stretch is not meant to improve your flexibility and, as such, is not held for very long.
How: Maintenance stretches are normally held for between 10 and 15 seconds with no attempt to move deeper than is initially comfortable.
Commonly used as part of a cool down, static stretching helps reduce muscle tension, lessening the muscle shortening and tightening that often happens after a tough workout and which can lead to muscles feeling tight and to post-workout aches and pains. Static stretching helps return your muscles to their original pre-exercise length.
Static stretches aren’t suited for pre-workout warm-ups as static stretching is thought to reduce muscle strength and power, and may possibly adversely affect balance. In other words, static stretching can temporally worsen performance. Since a warm-up should boost performance, static stretches are generally not recommended for warm ups, but are great for cool downs – loosening muscles and tendons, and aiding post-workout recovery.
2. STATIC DEVELOPMENTAL
Good for: Post-workout cool-down or separate stretching session
Why: To develop general flexibility
If you want to improve your flexibility, developmental static stretching is a good choice. Static developmental stretching coaxes a joint into a wider range of movement by overcoming the stretch reflex (this is the automatic contraction of a muscle when stretched – the contraction eases and the muscle relaxes after about 15 seconds). The stretch reflex is the body’s defense mechanism to prevent over-stretching or injury, and you must be highly sensitive to it; it is overcome by holding the stretch gently and not overstretching the muscle.
Developmental stretches are held for between 30 to 60 seconds or more and, as the name implies, you should try to increase the depth of the stretch slowly over time.
How: With static developmental stretching, you stretch the muscle to the point where you feel mild tension (stretch reflex) and hold it there for about 10 seconds – do not bounce or in any way force your way through it. After 10 – 15 seconds you will feel your muscles relax slightly and should then be able to gently move into a slightly deeper stretch to the point where the mild tension in the muscle reoccurs. Hold the stretch again. To facilitate going deeper into the stretch relax and breathe slowly and steadily – don’t hold your breath. The process can be repeated a number of times until an appropriate and extended range of motion is achieved. Once you are there, hold your last stretch for a further 15 to 30 seconds.
Developmental static stretching can be quite time consuming so is best reserved for muscles that are really tight. Developmental stretching is best used as part of your cool down or, if you are serious about improving your flexibility, during dedicated stretching sessions after a light warm up.
As with all types of stretching – do not force either type of static stretch.
3. DYNAMIC STRETCHES
Good for: Pre-workout warm-up
Why do it: To improve performance and reduce injury risk
Where static stretches are generally best used in the cool down, dynamic stretches are better suited to warming up. While static stretches work by simply holding a position, dynamic stretches increase flexibility through movement and to the uninitiated don’t even look like stretches! When done right, dynamic stretching helps to warm up the joints, maintain current flexibility, and reduce muscle tension.
The beauty of dynamic stretches is that they prepare your body for the activities you are about to perform without letting you get cold or reducing muscle power or balance. They also provide an excellent opportunity to rehearse the movements you are about to perform in your coming workout. Dynamic stretches are incredibly efficient and it is possible to have a preparatory effect on all your major muscles in as little as three exercises, although chances are you’ll want to perform more like five or six so you feel properly warmed up. By performing dynamic stretches such as leg swings, overhead reaches and standing waist twists, you stretch not one but two groups of muscles – one as you move in one direction and those muscles’ antagonists as you return. This two-for-one stretch makes dynamic stretching so time-efficient.
How: Some tips for your dynamic warm-up:
- When performing dynamic stretches, it is very important you increase your range of movement gradually over a series of 10 to 20 repetitions. Start off very cautious, conservative and at a slow pace and then increase the range of movement as you feel that you muscles are ready.
- Make sure that each stretch is performed rhythmically and with control. Don’t fling your limbs around with complete abandon! Each movement should take a couple of seconds to complete and at no point should you feel as though you are bouncing out of the end point of the stretch. Set a steady tempo and stick to it for the duration of your set.
- Do as many reps as you need to feel warm but no more. Save your energy for your workout! Don’t do so many repetitions that your dynamic stretches turn into a test of muscular endurance! This is especially true of exercises such as lunges and squats – both good examples of dynamic stretches for the more advanced exerciser.
- Precede your dynamic stretches with a 2 – 3 minutes of cardio to ensure your muscles and joints are nice and warm although, again, only do as much as you need to prepare your body for the coming workout.
4. BALLISTIC STRETCHES
Good for: Pros
Why: To improve performance and reduce injury risk for sports involving ballistic movements
Ballistic stretching is a lot like dynamic stretching only faster and more explosive, utilizing bouncing and jerking movements, which bring with them a greater risk of injury. For this reason ballistic stretching is not recommended for beginners or those who don’t actually need it.
In sports such as kickboxing, sprinting, gymnastics and even fencing, movements are performed very rapidly and through a large range of movement – the very definition of ballistic. This means that participants in these and similar sports may include ballistic stretching as part of their training. Not to do so would invite injury when they practice their chosen sport.
For the rest of us, where rapid and large movements are not the norm, the risk of ballistic stretching far outweighs any possible benefits. Dynamic stretches are fine for the majority of even the most ardent exercisers and deliver many of the benefits associated with ballistic stretching without the risks.
Ballistic stretching bottom line? Leave it to the pros. Only adequately prepared sportsmen and women should use this advanced form of flexibility training and even then, with caution.
- Anderson G, Bates M, Cova S, MacDonald R. Foundations of Professional Personal Training. Human Kinetics, 2012
- Paine, Tim. The Complete Guide to Sports Massage, A & C Black Publishers Ltd, 2013
- Blahnik, Jay. Full-Body Flexibility. Human Kinetics, 2010