By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 19 June 2009)
There are many different stretch techniques, some of which can be done early in a workout and others that should be saved for the end.
The most popular stretching techniques include static, passive, ballistic, dynamic, active, isometric, and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF).
Static stretching, the most commonly used technique, involves stretching a body part to the farthest point possible without pain and holding the stretch for a set period of time. This is the safest stretching method, and it has been proven to enhance flexibility.
Static stretching should be done at the end of a workout – doing it beforehand can impair performance in weight training and sports requiring explosive movement because it temporarily reduces muscle strength. Also, contrary to popular belief, most studies have found that doing static stretching before a workout does not prevent injury.
Passive Stretching (Also Known as Static-Passive or Relaxed Stretching)
Like static stretching, the body part is manoeuvred into position and held there for a set length of time. However, passive stretching requires a partner, machine, object, wall, or floor to generate external force.
One example of passive stretching is to have the stretcher lie on her back on the floor while a partner raises her leg and holds it in position to stretch the hamstrings. Other passive stretches include using a doorway to stretch arms and pectorals; using a hand, belt, or towel to hold arm and leg stretches; doing the splits, which uses the floor as the resistant force; and using a stretch machine.
Passive stretching can be used to increase flexibility in cases where muscles are resistant to static stretching. However, it must be exercised with caution, as there is a greater risk of injury if the stretch is implemented too rapidly or incorrectly. Also, increasing passive flexibility beyond the range of active flexibility can increase the risk of injury during physical activity, so it’s important to do active and dynamic stretches as well.
Like static stretching, passive stretching may temporarily decrease muscle power. It should be done at the end of a workout rather than the beginning.
Although this is often referred to as a form of dynamic stretching, with ballistic stretching, bobbing or bouncing motions are used to elongate muscles and push body parts past the limits of their current range of motion. Ballistic stretching is not recommended because it activates reflexive muscle contractions and increases the risk of injury.
Dynamic Stretching (Also Known as Functional Stretching)
With dynamic stretching, motion is used to induce a stretch, but it is controlled and fluid. There are no jerky movements as with ballistic stretching. Sports-specific dynamic stretching is ideal for improving power and overall athletic performance.
Dynamic stretching may include motions such as arm swings, leg raises, walking lunges, and side lunges, with 8-12 repetitions of increasing speed and/or range of motion. The goal is to achieve the full range of motion, not to push a body part past its natural range of motion, as with ballistic stretching.
With active stretching, muscles are stretched using the contraction of an opposing muscle group rather than assistance from external forces. Unlike dynamic stretching, active stretching requires holding the body part still.
An example of an active stretch would be to stand upright and slowly lift one leg and then hold the position for up to 15 seconds. Active stretching can also be done with resistance, whereby a weight is attached to the leg that is being lifted.
Active flexibility is better correlated with athletic achievement than the flexibility gained via static or passive stretching because it can increase muscular strength as well as flexibility.
Isometric Stretching (Also Known as Active Static Stretching)
With isometric stretching, muscles are simultaneously stretched and contracted. This technique can help to develop both flexibility and strength.
To perform an isometric stretch, assume a passive stretch position using the wall, floor, or a partner to supply the resistance and then tense the stretched muscle to contract it for approximately 4-15 seconds. Then, relax the muscle for 20 seconds or more. One example would be to have a partner hold the stretcher’s leg up high while he tries to force it back to the floor.
Given their high intensity, isometric stretching sessions should not be done more than once every couple of days at most. This method is not recommended for adolescents and children, as they are still growing and so will be at greater risk for injury.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Faciliation (PNF) Stretching
This stretching technique, which makes use of both passive stretching and isometric muscle contractions, requires a skilled partner. See PNF Stretching for more information.
Warm up Before Stretching
Doing any sort of stretch without warming up first may cause injury. Always warm up with 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity before stretching.
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