When researchers began to show that stretching isn’t as great as once thought, the knee-jerk reaction from the health and fitness community (or should we say: industry) was:
“well… obviously it’s because people are stretching wrong!”
This spawned tons of magazine and website articles from ‘gurus’ who proclaimed that the ‘right’ way to stretch wasn’t ‘static’ stretching, but ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’ stretching.
But are these other methods really any better?
PART I – First, let’s review the various ‘types’ of stretching.
NOTE: if this is boring, sorry :( I do plan on making a video about this soon! also, adding pictures too. Just really want to get this article up so I can write part II. Subscribe!
What do you mean ‘types’?
Obviously there are tons of ways to stretch. Most people think of this variety in terms of what stretches you can do. For example, do you try to stretch one muscle at a time, or groups? Which muscles are important to stretch? hint: depends on your activity.
Stretches can also be done in many different combinations and routines. The amount of time stretches are held also varies between methods. We’ll review the most effective strategies some other time.
But when we talk about ‘types’ of stretching, we really mean how a stretch is performed.
So if you pick just one stretch, any stretch, you could do it in these different ways:
Active vs. Passive and Static vs. Dynamic
Stretches are always either active or passive (muscle working or not), and static or dynamic (muscle moving or being held still). Read on for more detail.
ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE:
Active and passive refers to whether or not muscles are working during the stretch.
Active stretching means activating the muscles involved in the movement during the stretch. This means activating the muscles that either cause the opposite muscles to stretch naturally, or activating the muscles that are being stretched, or both. The muscles involved in reaching or bending don’t count.
Passive stretching is when the muscles involved in the movement are relaxed during the stretch. This type usually requires reaching, or putting your body part up on something or against a wall. You could also have a partner help you stretch this way.
STATIC vs. DYNAMIC:
Static means not moving. Dynamic means moving. Simple as that.
Static stretching means that once the stretch is achieved, it is held for a particular amount of time.
Dynamic stretching means that the end of the stretch isn’t held. Instead, you hit the end range, and go back and forth repeatedly.
The above two properties are always combined in one of these four ways:
Passive-Static stretching. This is when you get a stretch, hold it in place for a certain amount of time while keeping the muscle relaxed. By keeping muscles relaxed, you can usually stretch them farther than with any other technique.
This is the most common ‘classic’ type of stretching that has been the most researched.
Active-Static stretching: almost the same as the above, but all you have to do is activate the muscles being stretched, or instead of pulling your body part to stretch, move it there using your own muscle power.
Passive-Dynamic stretching: You keep the muscle relaxed, but don’t keep them still. This can be done using your other body parts (using your arms to move your legs) using ropes and pulleys, or having someone else move you.
Active-Dynamic stretching: This method actively uses the muscles while keeping them moving. For example: lifting your leg in front of you (stretching the hamstrings) repeatedly using your own leg muscles, instead of lifting your leg with your arms. Commonly, this type of stretching is done using more sport-specific “functional” movements, like a deep walking lunge to ‘stretch’ the legs for running.
There are countless methods, combinations, and special techniques, and we simply can’t review them all. However, they can usually be described using the above terms in some kind of combination. The only way they really differ is in what combination, timing, schedule, and which actual stretches are performed.
For example: Yoga uses a lot of active stretching, and a combination of static and dynamic techniques. Still, it uses some passive stretching when you are told to relax. Yoga uses many different poses, stretching one or many muscles at a time. It varies between types of Yoga and even between instructors.
I’ll quickly review two more types you may hear about often:
Ballistic Stretching: This type of stretching involves literally using momentum to swing your body part to it’s end range, hitting the end with some force, and bouncing back. For example swinging your arms behind you until they bounce back to the front to stretch your shoulders and chest.
This type has been ‘thrown out’ because of safety concerns. Obviously if you do this very hard you might hurt yourself. But if you take your time and don’t bounce too hard, it might be a decent way to warm up for a higher impact sport… and there actually isn’t much proof that ballistic stretching is dangerous.1 Still, it should be used with caution.
PNF Stretching: ‘Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation’, also known as ‘Muscle Energy Techniques’ (MET’s). The complicated name refers to the fact that, by alternating between active and passive stretching during a static stretch, you can cause a muscle to relax more than it would normally because of the effect on the nervous system.
For example: You do the good old sit and reach stretch for the hamstrings. You reach, then when you get as far as you can, you activate the muscles you are stretching (hamstrings) for 10 seconds. Then, you let them relax, and then maybe activate the muscles on top (quadriceps) for 10 seconds. Then push a bit deeper into the stretch while relaxing. You’ll find you can go noticeably farther. Repeat this whole process a couple times.
Thing is, the neurological effects are temporary, and there are some concerns over using this technique before you exercise. It could cause temporary weakness. But it is a neat little hack to get a temporary boost in flexibility.
How you decide to do a particular stretch can vary in many ways, but it’s always either active or passive (muscle working or not), and static or dynamic (muscle moving or being held still).
The most common is ‘Passive-Static’ stretching: the good old ‘go as far as you can and stay there for a while’ type of stretching.
But that type of stretching has been shown to be… not-so-great. It definitely does increase your flexibility. But, it actually doesn’t prevent injuries. And instead of improving athletic performance, it can actually decrease strength temporarily. For a review on the pros and cons, read: stretching.
People claim that the reason the research hasn’t shown great results for stretching is because we are doing the ‘wrong kind’ of stretching. Instead, they reason that we should be doing more “sport-specific”, or “functional” stretching, like ‘Active-Dynamic’.
But is this true?
In the next article, we’ll review whether this idea makes any sense, and what the research is telling us so far:
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