Stretching – the what, when and how

Stretching should be part of every workout, but how should we be stretching? A few movements at the end of the workout and hold for a few seconds will do it, right? Hmmmm. Not exactly! Below I’m going to outline the different types of stretch you can do can do, stretches you probably shouldn’t do, when you should do them, and for how long.

All stretches will fall into one of two categories – either active or passive. Active stretching refers to when the movement is completed without external assistance (i.e when a second person is pushing a limb towards the limit of its range of motion). Conversely, Passive stretching refers to when the movement needs an external force to be completed (i.e another person).

Starting off with a stretch that I actually recommend avoiding is the Ballistic stretch. This uses momentum to force the muscle beyond its normal range of motion by bouncing into a stretch position. This type of stretch can easily lead to injury as it works by forcing a limb to extend past its normal range of motion. This introduces the risk of damage to the muscle tissue or the nerves in the joint due to excess pressure exerted – not massively worth it!

This stretch type is used in sports that actually involve ballistic movements (football, for example), but it’s not one recommended for the average exerciser.

An example of a ballistic stretch is bouncing to touch the toes.

A stretch that may initially sound similar, but is a far more sensible choice is Dynamic stretching. This involves simply moving parts of your body and gradually increasing reach, speed of movement, or both. Movements are completed in a controlled fashion, and only take the muscle just below the limit of its range of motion. This type of stretch differs with Ballistic stretching in that it does not force the muscle beyond normal range of motion. If it does, you are definitely doing it wrong 🙂

This stretch is often used in an exercise class, but can be used as a warm-up stretch before any workout, as it will result in increasing the flow of blood into the muscle. Take note though, these movements should not be substituted for the warm up itself, but should be completed afterwards.

Examples of dynamic stretching:

Swinging the arms in a torso twist.
Moving the straight arms in front of the chest and then behind the back
Moving the legs upwards (with the toes pointing towards the ceiling) in a kick style movement

If you’re looking for a stretch that will improve muscle length and flexibility, either the Developmental stretch or the PNF stretch are the ones to go for. The Developmental stretch can be done solo. It must be performed when the muscles are warm, so during your cool down is the perfect time. This stretch is usually performed lying down or seated. Start by moving slowly into position until the point of stretch is felt. Hold for 6-10 seconds before taking the movement slightly further (remember never stretch to the point of pain), and hold for another 20 to 30 seconds.

This stretch is great for improving range of motion, flexibility, posture and can also be used to help with muscle cramps.

Examples:

Lying Hamstring stretch
Lying Lower Back Stretch
Seated Inner Thigh Stretch

If you’re reasonably happy with your ROM, and just want to stretch to avoid loss of flexibility, then Static Stretching is ideal. Again, this should be performed when the muscles are warm, so during your cool down. The stretch is completed by moving slowly into position until the point of stretch is felt, and holding for 10-30 seconds.

Examples of the static stretch:

Hamstring stretch
Quad stretch

Isometric stretching is another stretch that isn’t for the everyday exerciser. This is an advanced passive stretch that is great for developing an advanced range of motion. The stretch works by creating tension in the muscle without changing the length. For example, lying with a leg straight up in the air, and having a second person provide immoveable resistance that you push your leg against.

This stretch should be held for 10-15 seconds, and should only be performed when the muscles are warm.

And finally, PNF stretching.  PNF stands for Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, which sounds super scary and complicated. It’s certainly a bit more involved than other types of stretch, but the techniques are quite straightforward providing you are familiar with them, and how far to push the stretch. PNF is best performed with a partner who should also know the technique.

There are a few different techniques that can be used, which all involve stretching the muscle to the limit of it’s range of motion. PNF stretching can be uncomfortable. It probably goes without saying at this point that the muscle should be warm when you do this stretch. However, it’s also worth pointing out that PNF also tires the muscle – so performing before strength or endurance training will mean a less than optimal workout, but also increased risk of injury.

Here are outlines of 3 of the techniques:

Hold-relax

  • Move the limb into a stretched position and hold for 10-30 seconds.
  • Have a partner provide resistance (as with the Isometric stretch), and contract the muscle by moving it against the resistance ensuring no movement of the limb (using about 20% of your strength). This should last approximately 10 seconds.
  • Stretch the limb for a second time for 10-30 seconds. You should find the second stretch is deeper than the first.
  • Repeat 3 times.

 

Contract-Relax

  • Move the limb into a stretched position and hold for 10-30 seconds.
  • Have a partner provide resistance as you contract the muscle, but with movement this time.
  • Stretch the limb for a second time for 10-30 seconds. You should find the second stretch is deeper than the first.
  • Repeat 3 times.

 

Contract-relax-antagonist-contract

  • Move the limb into a stretched position and hold for 10-30 seconds.
  • Have a partner provide resistance and contract the muscle by moving it against the resistance – ensuring no movement of the limb (using about 20% of your strength). This should last approximately 10 seconds.
  • Immediately contract the opposite muscle (for example, the quad if stretching the hamstring) – again by having a partner provide resistance, with no movement of the limb. This should last approximately 10 seconds.
  • Stretch the limb for a second time for 10-30 seconds. You should find the second stretch is deeper than the first.
  • Repeat 3 times.

 

As with any movement, completing any stretch incorrectly can result in injury. If in doubt, seek guidance from someone who can walk you through or demo the techniques. Any questions, also feel free to ping me on info@TRRPersonalTraining.co.uk. I’ll be happy to put together an instructional video for you!

 

 

 

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