First, I am going to walk you through the “What” and “How” of the basic types of stretches. What is it? And How is it done? Then we will cover a bit more detail like ‘When“ you should perform these stretches and “Who“ they are best suited for.
Ultimately, stretching is designed to help reduce the risk of injury, so it is best to be sure you are doing it right, and doing what is right for you. Fitness is not always cookie-cutter... what works for someone else, may not work for you. Every Body is unique.
So, lets jump in.
The main types of stretches are Dynamic, Ballistic, Static, and PNF stretches.
Dynamic and Ballistic Stretching
Many people get these two kinds of stretching confused, because they both involve stretching while the body is in motion. But they are in fact, quite different.
Dynamic stretching takes the joints through the full range of motion while moving continuously. For instance, if you are working your legs, you’d take your lower body joints through full ROM. Like swinging your leg back and forth, side to side, and in circles. You move in a controlled and coordinated motion (being sure to work in all planes of motion). Dynamic stretching is used before dynamic movement is performed. Doing this helps to force blood to the specific muscle group you plan to work, which gives them more elasticity and prevents injury.
Ballistic stretching can look like dynamic stretching, but is characterized by rhythmic bouncing motions. Its more high-force and short-duration than traditional dynamic stretching. I always think of a boxer loosening up for a fight when I think of ballistic stretching. Whereas dynamic stretching is more controlled and coordinated, ballistic stretching is not. It may be similar in movement, but its different in execution.
So, which should you do?
I always recommend dynamic over ballistic stretching. Dynamic stretching is performed for the sake of avoiding and reducing the chance of injury. Ballistic stretching unfortunately, although it has been encouraged over the years, does not do this. The idea with ballistic stretching is that the high force with lengthen the muscle for better performance. The reality is, that the muscle can become elastic beyond its threshold, which can damage the muscle and cause tearing in soft tissues. I always find that with exercise, control, intension, and coordinated movements are superior to overall performance and injury prevention.
Static stretching is kind of like your classic Winnie the Pooh stretch of reaching down, touching your toes, and holding the position. Static stretching is probably what most people think of when they picture stretching. It’s the idea of stretching a muscle as far as you can, and holding the position for 15-60 seconds. There are two types of static stretching: Active, and Passive.
Active static stretching is when you stretch one muscle by activating an opposing muscle. I’ll explain. Say you want to stretch your calves. You sit in an L shape, legs out in front of you, body upright, chest forward. You flex your feet, pointing your toes toward your shins as hard as you can. This stretches the calve muscles while activating dorsiflexion. So you stretch one muscle while activating the opposing muslcle.
Passive static stretching is when outside pressure, force, or resistance is apllied to the stretch for increased intensity. For instance, holding your feet and pulling your chest toward your knees to stretch your hamstrings. Or leaning into a wall to stretch your calves. A partner or assisted device can also apply the pressure for you. For instance, you are lying on your back and you raise one leg to 90°, a partner then applies pressure to your heel, closing the angle between leg and body, stretching your hamstring for you. Or say you wrap your ankle with a resistance band and pull your leg toward your body. These are all examples of a passive static stretch
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation
Or PNF for short, is a contract/relax method of stretching. It is designed to improve range of motion and increase flexibility.
How is it done?
You want to stretch the muscle under tension. This can be done by using a partner or some immovable object (like a wall or the floor). Once in place, you hold the isometric contraction of the muscle for 5-10 seconds, followed by 10-30 second passive static stretch. You’d repeat this 2-4 times.
Ok? What does that mean? I’ll give you an example
Say you lack range of motion and flexibility in your shoulders. (I use this as an example because most people do... shoulders, hamstrings, and hip flexors are common for tightness). So you would use some type of tension: a partner, chin-up bar, reistance band, wall, floor...
If you are alone at home without equipment, you’ll probably utilize the floor or wall, so lets just assume this.
So you will sit upright, knees bent, and palms planted on the floor behind you (fingers pointing away from your body). Slide your hips forward across the floor, keeping your hand firmly planted behind you. You are now positioned to begin.
The “contract” portion will happen when you make a slight movement forward, creating a tension and “pull” on your shoulders. Hold for 5-10 seconds. This should hurt a little. Not excruciating pain, but it should be uncomfortable. The relax portion doesn’t look very different visibly than the contract portion. You basically slide your hips back far enough to release the “ouch” tension, while still stretching. You will hold this “relax” passive static stretch for another 10-30 seconds.
As with many thing fitness related, less is more. On an intensity scale of 1-10 (1-no pain or discomfort at all, 10-threshold of muscular elasticity, very uncomfortable), the “contract” stretch should be around a 6-8 (even lower on smaller muscle groups like in the neck), and the “relax” stretch around a 3-5.
Ok, so, we’ve covered the what and how of the basic types of stretches. Now onto the when and who.
For this portion, I thought I would draw a little flow chart. Hopefully this helps. Also, keep in mind that these rules apply for traditional cardio respiratory and resistance exercise. Different rules may apply for different forms of exercise. For instance, you will perform different degrees of static stretching throughout an entire yoga flow.
-Static stretch after a workout. Can weaken the muscle fibers
-Ballistic stretching can damage the muscles and cause tearing in soft tissue
-Static stretching before a workout can inhibit your workout. This is only recommended if you have muscle imbalance, very poor flexibility, and you are quite a deconditioned individual
-PNF stretching will help to increase Range of Motion
-Stretching before and after a workout will not help to avoid muscle soreness