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.
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.
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. Doing any sort of static stretch without warming up first may actually cause injury. Always warm up with 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity before stretching.
Note: 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.
Passive Stretching (Also Known as Static-Passive or Relaxed Stretching)
Like static stretching, the body part is maneuvered 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.
Ballistic stretching involves bouncy movements designed to push a body part beyond its natural range of motion. Some experienced athletes and dancers use these techniques, but those without sufficient experience, control, and flexibility may significantly increase their risk of injury if they attempt them.
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 Facilitation (PNF) Stretching
PNF techniques, originally developed as a form of physical therapy, make use of isometric muscle contractions during stretching.
PNF is a highly effective way of increasing both strength and flexibility, and only one stretch for each muscle group per session is required.
Some PNF techniques can be applied alone, using hands, a towel, the wall, or the floor to supply resistance, but doing the techniques incorrectly carries a risk of injury, so working with an experienced partner is advised.
There are a number of different PNF techniques, but two of the most popular are contract-relax and contract-relax-agonist-contract.
With contract-relax (also known as hold-relax), the muscle is stretched, contracted, relaxed, and then stretched a little further. For example, a partner gently stretches the hamstrings (muscles at the back of the thigh) by slowly raising the stretcher’s leg into position and then holding it steady while she resists, attempting to force her leg back down to the floor, thus contracting the target muscle. Recommended times for this contraction vary from one expert to the next, ranging from 4-15 seconds, with more experts recommending lower times of 4-6 seconds.
The hamstrings are then relaxed for up to 3 seconds, after which the partner moves the leg into a more intense stretch position, extending the range of motion slightly, and holds for 10-15 seconds. The rationale is that the first stretch will promote a relaxation response in the muscle, which will enable a further subsequent stretch.
The CRAC technique is the same as CR, except that the opposing muscle group (in the case of the hamstrings, this will be the quadriceps), is actively contracted after the contraction of the target muscle is relaxed. The full sequence is as follows:
- The partner raises the stretcher’s leg into the stretch position.
- The stretcher contracts his hamstrings, attempting to bring his leg back down to the floor for 4-15 seconds while the partner holds it in place.
- The stretcher relaxes his hamstrings, takes a deep breath, then exhales and contracts his quadriceps (the muscles at the front of the thigh) to deepen the hamstring stretch, and holds this contraction for a few seconds (there is also disagreement among the experts as to how long this second contraction should be held, with most favouring low times of 4-6 seconds).
While some athletic advisers recommend following up with an additional passive stretch, other experts maintain that no passive stretch is required after the second contraction and that implementing one may even increase the risk of injury.
Research indicates that the CRAC technique is the most effective for increasing range of motion, and has the added benefit of enhancing active flexibility. An example of active flexibility is the ability to hold a kick in the air for a few seconds without any support.
To avoid injury when implementing a PNF stretching program:
- Consult a doctor before beginning.
- Work with a skilled, experienced partner.
- Don’t engage in PNF stretching directly before athletic pursuits requiring strength or explosive movements because, like static and passive stretching, it can temporarily decrease muscle force production.
- Warm up with 5-10 minutes of aerobic activity before stretching.
- Use only about 20% of the maximum force possible when contracting muscles – research indicates that maximum effort is unnecessary for increasing range of motion and may cause injury.
- Rest for at least 20 seconds between stretches.
- Leave 36 hours or more between PNF stretching sessions – PNF stretching only needs to be done once or twice a week.
- PNF stretching can raise blood pressure, so those with high blood pressure should avoid it.
- Like isometric stretching, PNF stretching is not recommended for children or teenagers as the risk of injury is higher for those who are still growing.
There are a number of stretches that carry a relatively high risk of injury for those who lack flexibility or have suffered prior injuries. Some people can manage almost any stretch without experiencing any problems, whereas others, particularly those with certain medical conditions or chronic neck, back, or knee problems, may wish to avoid the following techniques.
Back bends (such as the yoga bridge) can pinch nerve fibers, jam spinal joints together, and squeeze spinal disks. Those with previous spine or neck injuries should consult a medical practitioner before attempting back bends, and anyone trying these techniques for the first time should do so under the supervision of a qualified instructor.
Full Neck Rotations
Rolling the neck through its full range of motion can injure the cervical disks. Those performing this neck stretch should stick to semi-circles at the front and never force the exercise to the point of pain.
According to the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, the correct technique is to “slowly roll [the neck] in a circle by taking your right ear to your right shoulder, dropping the chin to the chest, taking the left ear to the left shoulder and returning the head to center.” While performing this exercise, keep the shoulders down – don’t let them move up toward the ears.
For this technique, the stretcher sits on her heels and leans backward until her back reaches the floor to stretch the quadriceps. This stretch may also be performed with one leg folded under and the other straight in front.
The hurdler’s technique may overstretch or crush tissues and pinch nerves. In particular, it puts severe strain on the knees, so it is a bad technique for those with existing knee problems.
Inverted (Upside-Down) Stretches
Inverted stretches include any technique where the stretcher hangs upside down. Often used by body builders and in the treatment of back pain, these stretches require special frames or boots.
In addition to potentially exacerbating existing back problems when not overseen by a medical practitioner, inverted stretches increase blood pressure and intraocular (eye) pressure. Hanging upside down for a long time can even rupture blood vessels.
Those with glaucoma or high blood pressure should avoid inverted stretches altogether, and others should consult a doctor before engaging in such techniques.
For this technique, the stretcher keeps his legs straight and bends to touch his toes. Straight-legged toe touches can hyperextend the knees, as well as putting pressure on lower lumbar vertebrae.
Rapidly and forcefully twisting the torso can cause damage to ligaments or tissues. The risk is even higher when holding weights.
Torso twists are safe for most people if undertaken in a slow, controlled manner, but attempts to force the body past its natural range of motion may cause injury to the lower back and knees (knees should be flexed rather than locked into place while performing this stretch).
In one variant of the yoga plough, the stretcher lies on her back and sweeps her legs over her head, bringing her knees down beside her ears on either side. This stretch strains the lower back, putting excessive pressure on the spinal discs, as well as compressing the heart and lungs.
Even the gentler version of the plough in which the legs are swept over the head and positioned in a straight diagonal line above the face with toes touching the floor may be problematic for some people. Those who suffer from back or neck problems or high blood pressure should consult a medical practitioner before engaging in this pose.
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