By Kevin Masson MSc, CSCS, CPT, USAW, FMS
Stretching should be a part of every person’s fitness routine. Even though most people who are into fitness know that stretching can be very beneficial, some simply don’t do it. In order to get the most benefits from stretching, it’s important to do it properly. Improper stretching at the wrong time can cause more harm than good. With that in mind, some questions about stretching arise. When should you be stretching and why? What is the difference between dynamic and static stretching?
Benefits of stretching
In order to improve the range of motion around your joints, you need to stretch your muscles. If you are constantly working out but are not working on improving the range of motion around your joints, your performance will suffer. In addition to optimizing your performance during your workouts, stretching will also improve your daily life. The better you are able to move your body, the easier your life will be. There is a quote used by the famous Gray Cook founder of the Functional Movement Screen, “Move well, then move often.” What he means by that is, we first need to have the mobility necessary to function in our daily activities, then we need to move, do it habitually in order to not be sedentary. First comes the quality of the movement then, the quantity.
Additionally, regular stretching also improves circulation. In order for your muscles to work efficiently, they need a healthy blood supply. As we all know, blood delivers nutrients to many parts of your body. Many of those nutrients are essential for keeping your body functioning properly as well as recovering from workouts. If your muscles are too tight and your circulation is hindered, your recovery time will increase. Therefore, in order to reduce the time it takes for you to recover from your challenging workouts, you need to stretch.
Improved posture is another benefit of stretching. If you sit a lot, you will most likely hold tension in your chest, hip flexors, neck, and shoulders. Furthermore, even if you work out often, you will experience muscle tightness if you don’t stretch enough. For example, if you are a typical gym bro, continually doing bench press, your chest will become very tight if you don’t stretch. Over time, your shoulders will become rounded because your chest will be too tight. Unnatural postural deviations, such as rounded shoulders, can cause aches and pains as well as general discomfort. Bad posture also increases your risk for injuries, especially if it is not corrected in time. Add that to a sedentary lifestyle such as working in a seated position all day, and you got yourself a recipe for disaster and future problems.
Stretching will play a part in helping you correct your posture. For example, if you stretch your hip flexors, your pelvis is less likely to be tilted forward. Similarly, if you stretch your chest muscles along with a good strength training program, you will be less likely to have rounded shoulders and it can alleviate a lot of pain occurring from bad posture.
Stretching also helps to reduce stress. Many people often hold tension in their neck and shoulders when they are stressed. Regular stretching will help relax those tense muscles. An example of that is based on yoga, by holding some poses, mixed with breathing techniques can be very relaxing, it can even become a sort of meditation, and most people swear by it.
Now that we know the benefits of stretching, we can discuss the two well-known forms of stretching that you can do. Stretching can either be static or dynamic.
In general, static stretching is the most known type of stretching. Static stretching is most likely what you learned in PE at school, when a stretch is held for 10 to 40 seconds, depending on the flexibility and goals of the person who is doing the stretch. When it comes to static stretching, the goal is to hold the stretch in a challenging position without hurting yourself. Therefore, you should feel like your muscles are being stretched, but you should not feel pain. If you feel pain, then that means you are going too far at this time. Many fitness professionals consider static stretching to be an excellent way to improve flexibility. Furthermore, static stretching is considered safe. One example of a static stretch is the doorway chest stretch prescribed a lot by physical therapists to patients suffering from tight pectoral muscles.
Be very careful when you use static stretching. Static stretching SHOULD NOT be performed before an activity. If you do static stretching before engaging in physical activities, you are more likely to negatively impact your performance or put yourself at risk for injury. Research also shows that static stretching may inhibit the CNS (central nervous system), potentially making us weaker or less able to perform with power. Therefore, the best time for static stretching is after your workout, or even better in a session by itself. Your muscles have to be warmed up prior to static stretching. Stretching cold muscles is counterproductive and will do more harm than good.
Static stretching can also be done passively where a coach or partner will stretch the individual to their maximum range of motion and hold the stretch there for 30 seconds. This can be done a few times to stretch the muscle, but an even better way to increase range of motion is to use a method called PNF stretching. It stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. PNF stretching usually employs the use of a partner to provide resistance against the isometric contraction and then later to passively take the joint through its increased range of motion. Research shows that PNF is the golden standard if an increased range of motion is the goal.
Contrary to static stretching, dynamic stretching is when you repeatedly move through the joint’s full range of motion. Dynamic stretching should be challenging, controlled and smooth. Many fitness professionals and coaches believe that dynamic stretching is more beneficial than static stretching. This is also backed up by research that shows dynamic stretching done during warm-up is advantageous to the athlete.
Another benefit to dynamic stretches is that they are very similar to the movements that are actually performed during an activity. Therefore, dynamic stretches make sense to be part of a warm-up routine. Many professional athletes use dynamic stretches in their warm-ups. For example, performing some bodyweight lunges will target the glutes and leg muscles, creating blood flow and muscle activation for the activity that will come next. Coaches love to mix in some mobility in their dynamic stretching warm-up routine, and one way to do it is by incorporating some animal flow.
If you have never heard or done animal flow before I highly recommend you try it. I personally like it as a warm-up, but this could easily be done as an all-body mobility workout.
Please note that there is a big difference between dynamic stretching and ballistic stretching. Although they both involve movements, ballistic stretching involves rapid, often uncontrolled movements, forcing your muscles and joints to move beyond their range of motion. Ballistic stretching should not be mistaken for dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching is definitely far safer. Furthermore, it allows for a more gradual approach to improving your range of motion, as opposed to ballistic stretching, which can shock your muscles.
To summarize, stretching should be part of everyone’s fitness regimen. There are many benefits to stretching, including: stress reduction, improvement in performance, increase in flexibility, improvement in circulation as well as injury prevention. Every routine should include a combination of static and dynamic stretches. Static stretches require you to hold a position for a set amount of time. Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, require you to move through the full range of motion. It is imperative to only do static stretches after your muscles have already been warmed up. Therefore, static stretches should not be done before engaging in physical activity. Dynamic stretches, on the other hand, are safe to do before your activity as part of your warm-up routine. Regular stretching, when done correctly and at the appropriate times, can make a vastly positive impact on your performance and health.
Take away points
- Stretching is great to decrease potential injury by increasing muscle range of motion.
- Stretching promotes warm-up and recovery by increasing blood flow to the muscles
- It decreases pain and improves posture especially for desk jockey and sedentary people suffering from bad posture.
- Static stretching should be done only when the muscle is already warmed-up, after training or on a session of itself.
- PNF Stretching is the best stretch you can do to increase range of motion.
- Dynamic stretching is a stretch done by actively taking the joint through its full range of motion.
- Dynamic stretching should be part of your warm-up routine.
- Ballistic stretching is NOT dynamic stretching and should not be confused.
Behm, D.G. 2011. A review of the acute effects of static and dynamic stretching on performance. Sports. Eur J appl Physiol/ 111 (11): 2633-51
Andersson B. 2000. Stretching: 20thanniversary. Bolinas, CA: Shelter