From the time we were kids, our gym teachers and coaches told us to stretch. Since then there have been many studies published about stretching. Each one answers the questions of when – before or after exercise, how long – for each muscle and total amount of time, and what type you should do to get optimal performance. A lot of the results are contradictory, but this should come as no surprise, as this is what often happens with research. There are different controls, variables, and situations, and therefore different results. And, not everyone defines optimal performance in the same way. Some researchers are focused on strength, others on speed, and still another group on endurance.
However, all fitness professionals agree that flexibility is the range of motion within a joint and it is enhanced by stretching. There are several types but most can be grouped into one of two categories: dynamic (active) or static (passive). Simply put, dynamic stretching involves motion and passive does not.
Two examples of dynamic stretching are active and ballistic. Active is when you keep a position without assistance. For instance, if you were to stand on one foot with your leg straight but not lock your knee, lift the other leg in front of you parallel to the floor, and not move or sway without help. Active stretches are usually difficult to hold for more than 10 or 15 seconds.
Ballistic is a bouncing and repetitive motion. It forces you into an extended range of motion when the muscle has not relaxed enough to enter it. An example would be if you were to stand with your legs straight but not lock your knees, bend at the waist, touch your toes, bounce back up, and repeat. While there are different philosophies about both the effectiveness and safety of this type of stretching, many believe it should only be used by professional athletes or while supervised by a trainer. If performed incorrectly, injury could result.
Static stretching is when you stretch through a muscle’s full range of motion while the body is at rest. You generally hold the position 10-30 seconds, relax for a few seconds, and then repeat several times. Slight discomfort could be experienced during the stretch, but pain should not. An example is if you were to stand with your legs straight but not lock your knees, bend at the waist and hang comfortably in the down position without bouncing.
One type of static stretching is passive stretching. Using the example above, if you were to have a trainer help you to hold that position, it would be passive.
The benefits of stretching go beyond directly affecting your ability to exercise. They positively impact the activities of daily life. Your improved flexibility will make lifting grocery bags, tying your shoes, and gardening easier. A broader range of motion in your joints will aid in balance, and reduce the chance of you falling. Stretching also relieves stress, and improves circulation which can quicken recovery of muscle injury.
It is important to note that if stretching is performed improperly, you risk injury. Common incorrect practices are stretching until it hurts, holding the position for too long (for instance 5 minutes), or doing so vigorously. And, not to state the obvious, but you should always continue to breathe while you stretch. It seems somewhat comical to mention this, but you would be surprised at how many people hold their breaths. Be smart and use common sense. If you need additional guidance, ask a qualified trainer or physician.