Most gym enthusiasts and recreational exercises know they probably need to stretch more. However, many are not aware of the different methods of stretching and the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Below, we'll look at a few of the different ways to stretch our muscles and highlight some things you might not have considered.
Passive stretches are probably what you think of when you think of 'stretching'
Most gym users perform passive stretches as part of their warm-up. They stretch this way after they have raised their body temperature with 5-10 minutes of CV work before they do their weight training.
During a passive stretch, a muscle or group of muscles is gently eased into an elongated position.
Holding the end position of a kneeling hamstring stretch is a good example. This stretch is initiated by bending forward from the hips and sliding your hands down your shins until they cannot reach any further. This end position is then held for 15-20 seconds.
Gravity or external force, the latter provided by yourself, a partner, machine, belt or rope, applies the force to stretch.
To improve our flexibility with a passive stretch we need to repeat each stretch at least 5 times, attempting to move that little bit further with each subsequent attempt.
Range of Movement
We stretch to improve our Range of Movement (RoM). This can be around a joint, as in the case of the ankle. Alternatively, it can be around a series of joints, as in the case of the spine.
The Stretch/Reflex response
The problem with passive stretching and some of the other methods that will be considered later is that they have difficulty overcoming our muscles sticking point, technically known as the 'stretch/reflex' mechanism.
Our muscles have in-built stretch receptors. When they detect that one of your muscles is approaching it's end of range, it signals to your Peripheral Nervous System to contract the muscle. This helps stop the muscle becoming overstretched.
If you've ever found yourself stretching and you can feel the muscle twitching or shaking - that's your stretch/reflex response kicking in.
It's actually designed to safeguard us against involuntarily over stretching, for example in a situation where we might slip, lunge and throw out an arm or leg.
Passive stretching is not very effective at bypassing the stretch/reflex and in practice tends to maintain rather than improve flexibility.
Active stretching at first glance appears very similar to passive stretching in that it also involves holding a stretch. But there is a big difference, as an active stretch utilises a different form of muscular contraction.
When we stretch actively we 'hold' a body part in a stretched position. That is to say, without the assistance of external force to promote the stretch. The voluntary contraction of other muscles provides the means to stretch.
Examples of Active Stretches
- Straight Arm lift — for shoulders. Take one arm up so that it is in alignment with your body and reaching straight up above you.
- Leg Raise — for hamstrings and hip flexors. Lie on your back and lift one leg up. Draw it back until it cannot travel any further. Keep your back and other leg flat against the ground.
Active stretches should be held for 10 to 15 seconds.
Like passive stretches, their active counterparts have difficulty overcoming the stretch reflex. The end of the stretch tends to reside at this very point, rather than beyond it.
Active stretches do however have their own benefits.
For example, they are more closely allied to the way movement is carried out in fitness, sports and everyday life. We will reach up and hold a lat pull down bar, or forward to take the oar on a rowing machine, or up to grab a cup off of a shelf.
All these movements contain an element of an active stretch. Because of this, some authorities recommend that they are much more relevant for sports and fitness purposes than active stretches.
The problem is that if you are after significant increases in your RoM then active stretching just like passive stretching will not bring about significant improvements.
Given the limitations of the two previous stretching methods in terms of overcoming the stretch/reflex and significantly improving our R0M, it might appear that at least by name dynamic or ballistic stretches will be able to do the job.
A ballistic/dynamic stretch involves swinging and/or rotating body parts over an arc or through a plane of movement.
Examples of Ballistic or Dynamic Stretches
Leg Swings — for hamstrings and hip flexors
- Support yourself against a wall with one hand and face to the front.
- Keep your head, hips and feet in the same plane.
- Swing your inside leg forward and backwards, without bending at the hips or letting your trunk cave in.
- Gradually progress the speed and length of the swings.
- Complete 10 reps, change position and work the other leg.
Chest Press - for chest, shoulders and front upper arms
- Stand with your feet shoulder width a part. Keep your head up.
- Lift your elbows in front of your chest and touch your fingertips together. They'll form a sort of triangle, which should be parallel to the ground.
- To initiate the dynamic movement, push your arms and shoulders back and then swing your lower arms out behind you.
- Try to make the movement smooth and controlled.
- Do 10 reps.
Despite seeming ideally suited to beating the stretch/reflex, dynamic or ballistic stretching, like active and passive stretching, also comes up short. This type of stretch, more than the other two actually invokes a response from the stretch/reflex in the very way that it was designed.
That is to say, to protect us against injuring ourselves from over stretching.
However dynamic or ballistic stretching can be useful if you are involved in dynamic sports, like sprinting and martial arts.
These activities actually rely on equally dynamic muscular contractions to generate movement. Therefore, dynamic/ballistic stretches can help train and develop this sports specific ability in your muscles.
They'll also provide a much more specific element to your warm up.
Dynamic and Ballistic Stretching Safety Tips
Dynamic and ballistic stretching can cause injury.
If the stretch/reflex were foolproof then we would never pull or strain our muscles.
We can easily lose control over the range of movement when stretching this way. Consequently, approach this stretching method with respect.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching is the best way to improve our range of movement for range of movement's sake.
Of all the types of stretching so far mentioned, PNF can overcome the stretch/reflex response.
Although it is possible to perform PNF stretches on our own, perhaps with the aid of a towel or a band, we can get better results with a partner to assist us.
PNF stretching works based on external force increasing the potential for our muscles to stretch beyond their normal RoM. This method bypasses the stretch/reflex response.
Consider the following examples to see how.
PNF Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on your back on the floor.
- Relax, arms by your sides and get your partner to lift one leg up and back towards your head. Maintain a slight bend at the knee joint in this leg. Keep your other leg flat against the ground.
- Your partner will be able to push the leg being stretched back to the point where the stretch/reflex kicks in. Hold this position for 15-20 seconds and then push back against your partner through the heel of the leg. They must be braced and ready to offer resistance.
- Next comes the key element in the PNF stretches ability to overcome the stretch/reflex. You need to relax and then let your partner attempt to push your leg further back. You should find that it will move beyond its previous position due to the deactivation of the stretch/reflex.
- Hold for a further 10-15 seconds.
PNF Shoulder Stretch
- Stand straight and let your partner take both hands up behind your back.
- Your arms should be held straight. At around shoulder level the stretch/reflex will kick in.
- Hold this position for 15-20 seconds, then relax for a couple of seconds before letting your partner lift your arms higher and into new RoM territory. Don't lean forwards.
Can we be too flexible?
Yes, if we develop too much flexibility we can actually weaken our joints. This can make them more prone to injury and impair sports performance. We need to decide on the functional level of flexibility that we need for our fitness, sports and everyday activity levels. The goal is to train to achieve and maintain just that.
Pregnant women will be more flexible at this time due to the presence of the hormone relaxin in their bodies. They mustn't stretch beyond their previous non-pregnancy R0M. Damage could result to joints when after childbirth flexibility levels return to normal.
Note: some people are simply genetically predisposed to greater flexibility than others.