Stretching. Probably one of the most overlooked yet underrated aspects of any sort of physical activity. Even more overlooked however, is exactly which type of stretching is appropriate for what you are trying to accomplish. This is an issue that I commonly see with beginner’s just starting their fitness journey, but unfortunately I’ve even seen trained professionals who still coach and direct the people they work with to perform incorrect types of stretching in their training regimen.
“Wait… So you’re telling me there’s more than one kind of stretching??”
The answer to that question is a large and presumptuous YES!!! And it’s important to know and understand the differences between them all. There are many ways to stretch and rehabilitate a muscle, but I will go over some of the most common types of stretching, as well as the most appropriate times to perform each one.
THE STATIC STRETCH
This could quite possibly be considered the poster child in terms of stretching. The static stretch is usually what we envision in our minds when we hear the word “stretch”. We bend down, touch our toes, and hold. A static stretch is typically performed for a longer period of time than the other types that I will cover. (Typically 60 seconds or more)
There is a lot of research that backs up the idea that it typically takes about 60 seconds of constant tension and stretching of a muscle before the body can send a signal to the tightened area, and cause it to release and relax.
Now I know about 98% of you aren’t looking for me to dive into the exact science of how our muscles react to stretching, and all the medical jargon associated with it. I’m also the first to admit that there’s still a lot I don’t know in the field of anatomy and exercise science. My goal is to simply help you better understand the effects that each type of stretching has on our body, and the best ways we can utilize each one.
One of the biggest mistakes I see amongst new comers in the gym and those less experienced in the world of exercise, is performing static stretches right before they’re about to engage in some sort of intense exercise. I see it in runners, athletes preparing for a game or practice, and guys/girls in the gym getting ready to lift some heavy weight. This is a BIG NO NO, and I’ll tell you why.
When you’re performing a static stretch, you are essentially putting tension on the muscle for an extended period of time until the muscle eventually relaxes and loosens. When you are about to perform a workout at a higher than normal intensity, the last thing you want is to have the muscles that are supposed to be working for you relaxed and unable to perform like they should. They become somewhat inhibited and studies have shown that your muscular strength can be reduced for up to 15-20 minutes following static stretching.
Now with all this talk of strength decreases following static stretching, you may be wondering what the purpose of this kind of stretch actually is. Static stretching is actually best utilized after a workout or during your time outside of the gym. It’s considered a form of corrective stretching and is great for helping to correct muscular imbalances and improve your flexibility. For anyone looking to increase their overall flexibility or rehabilitate certain muscular issues, static stretching is a great tool to implement. Just be sure you’re performing it after a workout or later in the day as opposed to right before you begin your training.
This is probably my favorite form of exercise because the amount of flexibility you have with when you are able to perform it. (Not to mention the literal flexibility you gain while utilizing this form of stretching)
Myofascial Release is essentially a form of stretching where pressure is applied to a tightened area of the muscle. This pressure could come from a foam roller, somebody giving you a massage, or my personal favorite… A really hard ball! (Like a lacrosse ball)
When the tightened area of the muscle is placed under a great enough amount of pressure from one of the said methods, it allows the muscle to begin to release the tension and relax. Depending on the area, the amount of time it takes in order to loosen the muscle will vary. Luckily, this is a form of stretching that we can perform every single day at any time, so implementing it into our daily regimen over a period of time could significantly improve our performance and flexibility.
I personally prefer either a sport massage or a lacrosse ball when performing this type of stretching. In areas that are a little more specific and harder to get to, it is much more effective to target the muscle with something small rather than a big foam roller.
As I mentioned before, Myofascial Release can be performed before any sort of physical exercise, and can also be performed as a form of corrective therapy. I have utilized a lacrosse ball hundreds of times to help loosen up my hip flexors before squatting, increase the mobility in my shoulder while recovering from an injury, and just relax any areas of tightness my body may be currently experiencing.
You could almost consider Active-Isolated stretching a form of static stretching, but performed for a much, much shorter period of time. (3-5 second holds preferably)
This is the type of stretching that is best utilized before heavy strength training. It allows you to loosen up the muscles without stretching them to the point where they become inhibited as they do with static stretching.
Here’s an example of what I do when I’m performing an Active-Isolated stretch before a workout. Before jumping into any heavy exercise, I like to get a good, deep stretch in the area I’m going to be working, but I don’t allow myself to hold the position for longer than 5 seconds. I’ll perform the stretch as a set, getting a deep stretch of the muscle, then coming out and allowing it to rest for a brief moment before my next stretch or “rep”. I’ll then proceed to find a light weight exercise to warm up with and get the blood flowing to the muscle I’m about to work.
This is another great form of stretching that is acceptable before you begin your training. This type of stretching is where you perform smooth movements without any sort of excessive resistance in order to loosen the muscle and increase blood flow. High knees, jumping jacks, and light resistance band work all serve as good examples of dynamic stretching. Before I ever begin a heavy leg exercise, I always like to perform a few sets of body weight squats and lunges. Doing arm circles to loosen your shoulders could also be considered a form of Dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching is great to use before strength training, and especially before you engage in any sort of plyometric training where you are exploding and trying to use as much power as possible. The goal is to increase blood flow into the area of the muscles and get them warmed up before beginning your workout. When your muscles are warm, they are much more flexible and become a lot less likely to pull or get tweaked during exercise.
I’d like to conclude by saying that as important as stretching is in allowing your body to perform at an optimal level, I believe it’s even more important to make sure you understand the differences between each type of stretching. When performed correctly, not only can we prevent a lot more injuries during training, we can also improve our range of motion, increase our strength and muscle growth, correct muscular imbalances, and eliminate a lot of the chronic pain we suffer from on a daily basis.
I hope this short article can serve as a wakeup call to those who neglect to make stretching apart of their daily regimen, and a guide to help you reap the benefits of effective stretching as you continue along your fitness journey.