By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 19 June 2009)
When done properly, stretching can provide a number of benefits. Active and dynamic stretching in particular can be used to enhance athletic performance.
An ideal stretching program will include a combination of stretch techniques, rather than just passive stretching.
Static and Passive Stretching
Static stretching involves holding a stretch position for a set length of time, while passive stretching requires a partner, wall, floor, or mechanical device to implement the stretch. These techniques can provide the following benefits:
- Enhanced flexibility
- Mental and physical relaxation
Most studies do not support the idea that static or passive stretching before engaging in athletic activity prevents injuries or muscle soreness. In fact, doing static or passive stretches before a workout when the muscles are not yet warmed up may actually cause injury, as well as temporarily reducing muscle power, which may impair performance.
Active and Dynamic Stretching
Active stretching involves performing a stretch in such a way that it contracts the antagonist (opposing) muscle, for example, raising a leg and holding it upright for 5-15 seconds. Dynamic stretching makes use of sports-specific movements such as swinging an arm or a leg through its full range of motion. These stretching methods, when done properly, can provide all the same benefits of static and passive stretching, as well as:
- Improved muscular strength, stamina, and overall sports performance
- Fluidity of motion with more efficient muscle movements
- Improved ability to exert maximum force throughout a wide range of joint motion
- Better physical appearance, posture, and body alignment
Active and dynamic stretching can be done near the beginning of a workout (after the warm-up) or at the end of a workout while muscles are still warm.
Warm up Before Stretching
To get the most out of a stretching routine, it’s important to warm up beforehand. The warm-up should comprise 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity, such as jumping jacks, skipping, jogging, or using cardio machines. It is also beneficial to perform joint rotations (slow clockwise and counter-clockwise circular movements of the fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, waist/hips, knees, ankles, and toes) to lubricate the joints with synovial fluid. When rotating the neck, don’t do full circles, as this is hard on the spine – stick to half circles at the front and avoid tilting the head back or raising the shoulders.
Ideally, the warm-up should include sport-specific motions, or less intense versions of the physical activity to come. Such motions may include dynamic stretches, though engaging in a few minutes pf aerobic activity beforehand is recommended to ensure that muscles are warm before any sort of stretch is implemented.
Effective Stretching Strategies
When implementing a stretching routine:
- Include all major muscle groups.
- Do two or more different types of stretches for each muscle group.
- If weight training or engaging in sports, save static or passive stretches for the end of a workout or sports practice, as they may reduce muscle strength for up to 30 minutes.
- Do stretches that work just one muscle group at a time (for example, stretch one calf and then the other, rather than both at once).
- Don’t stretch beyond the point of mild discomfort – stretching shouldn’t be painful.
- If experiencing muscle soreness after a workout, stick to very light stretches (5-10 seconds in duration, low intensity).
How Long to Hold Static and Passive Stretches
There is much disagreement among the experts regarding the ideal length of time to hold a stretch, with estimates ranging from 5 seconds to more than a minute. Most studies support a stretch time of 15-30 seconds, though children and adolescents can usually achieve flexibility benefits with stretches that are shorter in duration.
Rests between stretches should be approximately the same length of time as the stretch is held. Experts generally recommend that 2-5 sets be performed for each stretch to build flexibility.
Stretching will be more effective with proper breathing to aid in relaxation, blood flow, and removal of lactic acid and other exercise by-products. Breathe slowly, taking long, relaxed, deep breaths that expand the abdomen rather than the chest, increasing the intensity of the stretch while exhaling.
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