Stretching is slightly more technical than swinging a leg over a park bench. There are rules and techniques that will maximize its benefits and minimize the risk of injury. We will look at the different types of stretching, the particular benefits, and the risks and uses, as well as give a description of how each type is performed.
Just as there are many different ways to strength train, there are also many different ways to stretch. However, it is important to note that no one way in particular, or no one type of stretching, is better than another. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the key to getting the most out of stretching lies in being able to match the right type of stretching to the purpose or goal you are trying to achieve.
For example, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and passive stretching are great for creating permanent improvements in flexibility, but they are not very useful for warming up or preparing the body for activity. Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, is great for warming up, but can be dangerous if used in the initial stages of injury rehabilitation.
Although there are many different ways to stretch, they can all be grouped into one of two categories: static or dynamic.
The term “static stretches” refers to stretching exercises that are performed without movement. In other words, the individual gets into the stretch position and holds the stretch for a specific amount of time. Listed below are five different types of static stretching exercises.
1. Static Stretching
Static stretching is performed by placing the body into a position whereby the muscle (or group of muscles) to be stretched is under tension. To begin, both the antagonist, or opposing muscle, and the agonist, or muscle to be stretched, are relaxed. Then slowly and cautiously the body is moved to increase the tension of the muscle being stretched. At this point the position is held or maintained to allow the muscle to lengthen.
A minimum hold time of about 20 seconds is required for the muscle to relax and start to lengthen, while diminishing returns are experienced after 45–60 seconds.
Static stretching is a very safe and effective form of stretching, with a limited threat of injury. It is a good choice for beginners and sedentary individuals.
2. Passive (or Assisted) Stretching
This form of stretching is very similar to static stretching; however, another person or apparatus is used to help further stretch the muscle. Due to the greater force applied to the muscle, this form of stretching is slightly more hazardous. Therefore, it is very important that any apparatus used is both solid and stable. When using a partner it is imperative that no jerky or bouncing force is applied to the stretched muscle. So, choose a partner carefully – the partner is responsible for the safety of the muscles and joints while performing the stretching exercises.
Passive stretching is useful in helping to attain a greater range of movement, but carries with it a slightly higher risk of injury. It can also be used effectively as part of a rehabilitation program or as part of a cool-down.
Example of Passive Stretching
3. Active Stretching
Active stretching is performed without any aid or assistance from an external force. This form of stretching involves using only the strength of the opposing muscles (antagonists) to generate a stretch within the targeted muscle group (agonists). The contraction of the opposing muscles helps to relax the stretched muscles. A classic example of an active stretch is one where an individual raises one leg straight out in front as high as possible and then maintains that position without any assistance from a partner or object.
Active stretching is useful as a rehabilitation tool and a very effective form of conditioning before moving on to dynamic stretching exercises. This type of stretching exercise is usually quite difficult to hold and maintain for long periods of time and the stretch position is therefore usually only held for 10–15 seconds.
Example of Active Stretching
4. PNF Stretching
PNF stretching is a more advanced form of flexibility training, which involves both the stretching and contracting of the muscle group being targeted. PNF stretching was originally developed as a form of rehabilitation and for that function it is very effective. It is also excellent for targeting specific muscle groups and, as well as increasing flexibility (and range of movement), it also improves muscular strength.
There are many different variations of the PNF stretching principle and sometimes it is referred to as “contract-relax stretching” or “hold-relax stretching.” Another variation of the PNF technique is “post isometric relaxation (PIR).”
The area to be stretched is positioned so that the muscle (or muscle group) is under tension. The individual then contracts the stretched muscle for 5–6 seconds while a partner (or immoveable object) applies sufficient resistance to inhibit movement. The effort of contraction should be relevant to the level of conditioning. The contracted muscle is then relaxed and a controlled stretch is applied for about 30 seconds. The athlete is then allowed 15 to 30 seconds to recover and the process is repeated 2–4 times.
Information differs slightly about timing recommendations for PNF stretching. There are conflicting responses to the questions “For how long should I contract the muscle group?” and “For how long should I rest between each stretch?”.
Example of PNF Stretching
5. Isometric Stretching
Isometric stretching is a form of passive stretching similar to PNF, but the contractions are held for a longer period of time. Isometric stretching places high demands on the stretched muscles and is not recommended for children or adolescents who are still growing. Other recommendations include allowing at least 48 hours’ rest between isometric stretching sessions and performing only one isometric stretching exercise per muscle group in a session.
A classic example of how isometric stretching is used is the standing “push-the-wall” calf stretch, where the participant stands upright, leans forward against a wall, and then places one foot as far from the wall as is comfortable while making sure that the heel remains on the ground. In this position, the participant then contracts the calf muscles as if trying to push the wall down.
To perform an isometric stretch, assume the position of the passive stretch and then contract the stretched muscle for 10–15 seconds. Be sure that all movement of the limb is restricted. Then relax the muscle for at least 20 seconds. This procedure should be repeated 2–5 times.
Example of Isometric Stretching
The term “dynamic stretches” refers to stretching exercises that are performed with movement. In other words, the individual uses a swinging or bouncing motion to extend their range of movement and flexibility. Listed below are four different types of dynamic stretching exercises.
1. Ballistic Stretching
Ballistic stretching is an outdated form of stretching that uses momentum generated by rapid swinging, bouncing, and rebounding movements to force a body part past its normal range of movement.
The risks associated with ballistic stretching far outweigh the gains, especially when better gains can be achieved by using other forms like dynamic and PNF stretching. Other than potential injury, the main disadvantage of ballistic stretching is that it fails to allow the stretched muscles time to adapt to the stretched position and, instead, may cause the muscles to tighten up by repeatedly triggering the stretch (or myotatic) reflex.
Example of Ballistic Stretching
2. Dynamic Stretching
Unlike ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching uses a controlled, soft bounce or swinging motion to move a particular body part to the limit of its range of movement. The force of the bounce or swing is gradually increased but should never become radical or uncontrolled.
Do not confuse dynamic stretching with ballistic stretching. Dynamic stretching is slow, gentle, and very purposeful. At no time during dynamic stretching should a body part be forced past the joint’s normal range of movement. Ballistic stretching, on the other hand, is much more aggressive and its very purpose is to force the body part beyond the limit of its normal range of movement.
3. Active Isolated Stretching
Active isolated (AI) stretching is a new form of stretching developed by Aaron L. Mattes and is sometimes referred to as the “Mattes Method.” It works by contracting the antagonists, or opposing muscle group, which forces the stretched muscle group to relax. The procedure for performing AI stretching is as follows.
1. Choose the muscle group to be stretched and then assume the appropriate starting position.
2. Actively contract the antagonists, or opposing muscle group.
3. Move into the stretch quickly and smoothly.
4. Hold for 1–2 seconds and then release the stretch.
5. Repeat 5–10 times.
While AI stretching certainly has some benefits (mainly for the professional or well-conditioned athlete), it also has a lot of unsubstantiated claims. One such claim is that AI stretching does not engage the stretch reflex, because the stretch is only held for 2 seconds or less (Mattes 2000; Wharton 1996). This, however, defies basic muscle physiology. The stretch reflex in the calf muscle, for example, is triggered within three-hundredths of a second, so any claim that AI stretching can somehow bypass or outsmart the stretch reflex is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Example of Isolated Stretching
4. Resistance Stretching and Loaded Stretching
Resistance stretching and loaded stretching are forms of dynamic stretching that both contract and lengthen a muscle at the same time. They work by stretching a muscle group through its entire range of motion while under contraction. For this reason, both resistance stretching and loaded stretching are as much about strengthening a muscle group as they are about stretching it.
Like AI stretching above, resistance stretching and loaded stretching do have their benefits. The five- time Olympic swimmer Dara Torres credits a portion of her swimming success to the use of resistance stretching. However, these forms of stretching place high demands on the musculoskeletal system and therefore are recommended only for professional or well-conditioned athletes.
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