When my patients are looking for the best technique in stretching muscles, the best answer I have is “it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.”
We all know, or at least have heard, about the importance of stretching. Whether it is to improve your athletic performance, for general health and wellness, or to relieve pain and tension, stretching can be the answer. The real question is what kind of stretching should we be doing to get the best results for our goals? When it comes to stretching, there are four main techniques: static, dynamic, ballistic, and PNF stretching.
Static stretching is what typically comes to mind when talking about stretching. It is a form of active or passive stretching in which you hold a position for about 30-60 seconds, allowing the muscles and their connective tissues, fascia, to lengthen. This is the most commonly known style of stretching and has been seen as the status quo for years. This style of stretching may not be the best way to improve performance before an activity. Using a static stretching program prior to engaging in physical activity may inhibit the muscle’s ability to fire properly. The primary reason for this is a reduction in muscle tension and an increase in length between resting muscle fibers. These two factors alter the length-tension relationship of the muscle, causing a decrease in muscle excitability. This, in turn, can directly affect the muscle’s ability to optimally function. Think of the tension in a rubber band. When you stretch a rubber band and hold that tension for a long period of time, you cause the rubber band to increase in length but lose the stored energy. The band’s tension is what allows the band to be functional. Our bodies rely on similar forces to propel us forward during a sprint or allow us to jump high during a sport like basketball. If we overstretch our muscles, this inhibits elasticity, which inhibits our performance. This type of stretching is best utilized after the physical activity or sport is completed in order to allow an active cool-down.
Dynamic stretching is a form of active stretching that is performed by engaging the desired muscle’s antagonist through the joint’s range of motion, only holding the stretch for 2-3 seconds. Because the stretch is only held briefly, the muscle is able to increase in length without a reduction in muscle tension or muscle excitability. By preventing the reduction in muscle tension, an individual is able to improve their range of motion without a loss in force production. This type of stretching is also referred to as a dynamic warm-up, which athletes use to prepare their muscles for the rigorous demands of their sport.
Ballistic stretching is the most controversial form of stretching. Unlike dynamic stretching, ballistic stretching utilizes muscle activation through quick, jerky movements. This inhibits the body’s stretch reflex and increases the muscle’s range of motion through the force created by the bouncing. The extra external force produced can overload the muscle, increasing the risk for potential injury. Because the high risk of injury does not outweigh the benefits of the stretch, most health and fitness professionals do not recommend using this style of stretching.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching — which is usually, shortened to PNF stretching — is less of a stretching style and more of a technique combining passive and isometric stretching in order to achieve maximum flexibility. Types of PNF stretching include hold-relax, contract-relax and rhythmic initiation. PNF stretching has been proven to improve active and passive range of motion. It can be used to supplement daily, static stretching and has been shown to help athletes improve performance and make speedy gains in range of motion. Not only does it increase flexibility, but it can also improve muscular strength. Originally developed as a method of rehabilitating stroke victims, PNF stretching has since become a common and popular treatment among many physical therapists and other sports injury professionals.
When looking at the four different styles of stretching, we can see that they can all be utilized to increase range of motion. Static stretching is the more well-know style and is commonly used for general stretching, but can inhibit muscle excitability, making it unappealing to people active in fitness and athletics. Dynamic stretching increases range of motion while maintaining muscle tension, making it useful for general stretching, fitness enthusiasts and athletes. Ballistic stretching can increase range of motion quickly, but has a higher risk of injury than other effective techniques. PNF is generally performed by a clinician but can be highly effective in improving passive and active range of motion.
We all know we should stretch and Kintsugi Physical Therapy can help guide you safely and effectively so you can reach your health, fitness and wellness goals.