Believe it or not, there are actually two camps of people when it comes to stretching: Those who believe it is good for you, and those who do not. Those in favor of stretching argue that it helps to improve performance and that good flexibility can prevent injury. But there are actually two times as many researchers who claim that stretching can have negative effects on an athlete. They argue that there is evidence that static stretching prior to running can actually lead to injury and that intense static stretching can reduce muscle force for up to an hour afterwards. They also claim that stretching does not reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) like many believe.
So which view point is correct?
Well, both of them actually are and here’s why: There are four different types of stretches and each should be utilized differently. Whether you stretch before or after a workout impacts which type of stretch you should be using. We’ve bulleted a list of the four types of stretches with key information about each of them so you can be sure you are stretching appropriately to prevent injury rather than cause harm.
Static Stretching: This type of stretching is the kind that most people are familiar with. When you perform a static stretch, you hold a position for 10-60 seconds at a clip. For instance, the classic runner’s stretch where you extend one leg straight out in front of you and reach for your toes is an example of a static stretch. This type of stretching should always be done after a workout when your muscles are warm and ready to be stretched. When done after a workout, it’s the best type of stretch to help elongate muscles to improve flexibility. However, when done before a workout, it can be a hindrance. Not only are muscles cold, but this type of stretch forces the muscle to relax which is problematic when you need your muscles to be active and powerful during activity. Stretching this way before a workout will negatively impact your performance. Thus, familiarize yourself with some good static stretches, but be sure to use them only once you are done with training for the day.
Dynamic Stretching: As the name suggests, this type of stretching is basically the opposite of static stretching. Our members are very familiar with dynamic stretches because we always start class this way. This type of stretching is active and requires the momentum of movement. An example of a dynamic stretch would be leg swings where you move in a quick, controlled way through a full range of motion. This type of stretching is beneficial because it improves the range of motion in your joints while also loosening your muscles. It also increases your heart rate and body temperature, and gets your blood flowing so that you are ready for your workout. Thus, dynamic stretches are the optimal way to warm up before training.
PNF Stretching- PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. To do this type of stretching, you stretch passively for a few seconds and then push actively against the stressor before relaxing into a passive stretch again. This process is be repeated over and over again. For example, lie on your back and have a partner lift one of your legs straight off of the ground until the stretch becomes difficult. Then, relax your leg against your partner’s hand for about 10 seconds until your partner asks you to push back as hard as you can. Relax your muscles again and watch as your leg is lifted higher than before. Do this a few times until you have increased your range of motion drastically in an incredibly short amount of time. That is PNF stretching. The main benefits of this type of stretching is that allows you to increase your ROM quickly, improve your stability surrounding joints, and allows for greater muscle relaxation. It actually resets your nervous system which is why it’s name suggests a connection between your nerves and your muscles. Because it does call upon your nervous system, it is best to do this type of stretching after a workout or even right before bed.
Ballistic Stretching- A ballistic stretch is any stretch where the athlete utilizes a bouncing motion. For example, the butterfly stretch where one bounces their knees up and down is a ballistic stretch. This type of stretching is terrible and should never be done. It rapidly stretches tissue which increases the chance of injury and it can cause micro tears in the muscle fibers. Luckily, this type of stretching seems to be going out of fashion. Avoid it at all costs.
So now that you know about the four types of stretches, what they are used for and when to do them, how do you know what needs to be stretched? As odd as this sounds, that’s an important question. If you have amazing flexibility in your shoulders, but terrible hamstring flexibility, stop stretching your shoulders out and start working on those hammies. That might sound obvious but we all tend to gravitate towards doing what we are good at when sometimes, we need to spend time focusing on the areas in which we need to improve.
Not sure what your area of weakness is?
Dr. Chloe Costigan of the Mobility Doc Team in Bethlehem, PA suggests that, “to determine if the thing you’re doing is effective, it’s important to test and re-test. Do some type of movement that is uncomfortable or feels labored. Stretch and then retest that movement. If it feels better continue to do that stretch. If it feels worse or there is no change, find something else.”
Again, a notion that may seem obvious, but results should be data driven so take the time to test your flexibility before and after stretching. That way you can best use your time to create a stretching routine that works for you.