An aspect of fitness that is often overlooked is stretching. As your body ages, your muscles and joints age as well, increasing risk for injury. Crucial for functional health, stretching will help maintain a good range of motion and keep your muscles working smoothly to support the body.
There are numerous ways to stretch your body. Besides the commonly known static and dynamic stretching, there is ballistic stretching, yoga, pilates, and foam rolling. Each has its own benefit, but we will focus on static, dynamic, and ballistic stretching as these are the most common.
Which One Should You Choose?
What people usually think of when they hear stretching is static stretching. You move into a stretch, hold it for up to a minute without moving, and relax back to the starting position. For example, bending over and reaching for your toes is a static stretch. Once you get into the stretch, you let your body hang while you feel a nice stretch on your hamstrings.
Static stretching feels, and is great, but it shouldn’t be used exclusively. More importantly, there is a time and a place for this kind of stretching.
Ballistic stretching is an active form of stretching where you move and push your body past its limit. An easy way to manipulate a simple toe reach into a ballistic stretch would be bouncing up and down trying to reach as far as you can go each time. If this already sounds risky to you then you’re on the right track. Athletes who perform ballistic movements in their sport typically use this type of stretching. They need to push their body past its limit to perform their best. But you and I are not professional athletes and I’m guessing you don’t want to push your body like that. That’s where dynamic stretching comes into play.
Dynamic stretch (also called active stretching) is similar to ballistic stretching where you actively move your body in the stretch; however, your body isn’t pushed to its limit. Instead, you move in and out of the stretch in a controlled fashion. So for the toe touch mentioned earlier, you would slowly reach for your toes until you feel a stretch and repeat this motion for a desired amount of times. Dynamic stretching should definitely be used in conjunction with not only your workouts, but static stretching as well. However, knowing when to use these techniques is crucial to reaping the full reward.
When to Use Static and Dynamic Stretching
There isn’t a wrong time to stretch. Any type of stretching will be beneficial when you don’t stretch regularly. The key to optimizing stretching for performance and longevity is knowing when each should be used. Dynamic stretching is active so it would make sense that it is most valuable to perform dynamic stretches before a workout. Studies have shown dynamic stretches improve performance and reduce the likelihood of injury when used before a workout.
Static stretching before a workout is not necessarily bad, but it is best used after a workout. Muscles need to be warm and pliable as stretching a cold muscle could cause injury. I like to use a rubber band as an analogy. Stretching a cold, tight rubber band might cause it to snap while a rubber band that is nice and warm will stretch much more easily. Studies also show static stretches before a workout even with a warm-up may negatively impact performance. Why is that? Think about how your muscles and even you feel after a series of static stretches. Almost everyone would say they feel relaxed. Most people don’t realize this but relaxing a target set of muscles before you need to explosively contract them will definitely impact performance to a degree. So try to keep the static stretches for after a workout.
Here is an example of how a leg workout should be structured:
A 10 minute warm-up on the treadmill or elliptical followed by dynamic stretches. These dynamic stretches can be: butt kickers, high knees, leg lifts, and air squats. After you workout you should perform a 5 minute cool-down followed by a series of static stretches.
Takeaways and Advice
If you don’t stretch at all at the moment, that okay! The purpose of this article is to inform you on the basics and benefits of stretching so you can apply it to your routine. Here are a few suggestions:
- Engage in dynamic stretching along with your warm-up routine. Whether its cardio or strength training, choose stretches that target the main muscles that will be used in the workout. Slowly increase intensity until you feel your body is ready.
- Perform static stretches after a workout. Target your major muscle groups for sets of 10 to 30 seconds and a total of 60 to 90 seconds for each group.
- When you stretch be sure to gently move into each position. You might feel a slight discomfort at the end of the stretch but you shouldn’t feel any pain. If it feels very uncomfortable or painful, back off a bit and ease into the stretch over time.
- Unless you are an experienced athlete or performer, avoid ballistic stretching as it carries a higher risk to reward ratio. Other forms of stretching that were mentioned earlier or you would like try will be useful but know your body and its limits.
I know it may be hard, but stretching is crucial for your overall health. If you haven’t stretched at all and feel like it will be hard to begin stretching, check out our article on desk exercises while sitting. It includes several super-easy stretches and exercises to get your blood flowing. Remember, keep it simple!
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Samson, Michael, et al. “Effects of Dynamic and Static Stretching within General and Activity Specific Warm-up Protocols.” Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, Asist Group, 1 June 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3737866/.