We all know that stretching is meant to be good for us. Whether we are trying to touch our toes or are attending our weekly yoga class. But what is the best way to stretch? And is there a way of making it more interesting? There are actually many different ways of stretching. And depending what your goals are, they can be used to optimise your exercise.
Stretching is great for you in many different ways. We all feel better after a good stretch first thing in the morning or after a hard days work. Stretching aids relaxation, helping the tension in our muscles to switch off, and in turn can lower stress levels. By increasing the range of motion of a joint and making the surrounding muscles more compliant, our risk of injury decreases. Muscle tightness can increase the chance of injury during exercise e.g.muscle tears and tendon problems. Stiffness and achy muscles after exercise can also be relieved by a good stretch and, over time, our joints become more supple. Our performance during sporting activity may be enhanced if we warm up and stretch beforehand, after all, the more flexible we are, the better our movement will be. This is particularly important in sports which are heavily reliant on dynamic movements. Stretching and cooling down after sport and exercise can also help your body recover; ready for the next session.
In other words, a good warm up and stretch before your next 5 a side football match will help you play better, recover better and reduce your risk of injury. Well worth it!
What are the different ways to stretch?
When most people imagine ‘doing their stretches’, static stretching what they are referring too. ‘Static’ essentially means holding a stretch without moving. Static stretching can be active or passive.
Active stretching does not use external forces to produce the stretch. The stretch comes from the opposing muscles holding the limb in position, stretching the target muscle. For example, standing on one leg and holding the opposite leg out directly in front of you is classed as a static active stretch. The quadriceps actively hold the stretched limb out while the hamstrings are the muscle groups being stretched.
Passive stretching occurs when an external force is exerted on the limb to move it into a stretched position. This external force can be provided by using your own hands, a partner, gravity or a mechanical device such as a band. Using the floor to stretch still counts as a passive stretch, as the floor is providing an external force (for example trying to do the splits on the floor).
This is another type of static stretch where during a passive static hold, you contract your muscles against the resistance (but without your limbs moving). An example of this is a doing calf stretch against a wall. By trying to ‘push the wall’ you create an isometric contraction which will enhance your stretch.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) may sound scary but is actually very simple. It is basically a combination of passive and isometric stretching. Imagine lying on the floor with one leg on the ground and the other in the air supported by a partner. Your partner creates a passive hamstring stretch by pushing your leg up vertically. If you push back against them i.e. attempting to bring your leg back to the floor, you create a isometric stretch (provided your limb doesn't move). If you continue pushing down for 30 seconds then relax, your partner will find they are able to push the passive hamstring stretch a little further and get your leg up a little higher. There are different physiological reasons why PNF stretching is so effective but many athletes in the elite sport world take advantage of it to gain extra flexibility.
This involves using movement patterns to mimic the exercise or sport you are about to do e.g. performing the motion of a golf swing to warm up. After a few repetitions, you will be able to increase reach and speed of movement. Another example is repeatedly swinging your leg back and forth. The movement should be one continuous smooth motion with no ‘jerking’. Dynamic stretching improves dynamic flexibility and is a very good way to warm up before a work out as it mimics the action you are about to perform.
Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of your body to ‘force’ the tendon beyond its normal range of motion. This uses the bounce or ‘elastic property’ of tendons to not only stretch the muscle, but help gradually length the tendon. This movement triggers the stretch shorter cycle, which is when a stretch of a muscle is followed by an immediate contraction and shortening. Each time the tendon stretches in the cycle it can lengthen that little bit more. An example ballistic stretch is bent over toe touching with a bouncing movement. On each movement, the athlete attempts to touch the ground using the bounce of gravity and bodyweight to assist in the stretch.
Beware! Ballistic stretching is potentially harmful as the muscles and tendons are forcefully pushed into a stretch. Use this one with care!
Stretching top tips
With all this in mind, here are some tops tips to spice up your stretches.
Have a go at all the different techniques to keep your stretching interesting. Create a warm up or cool down that uses a variety of stretches and mix up your routines. This keeps the muscles "on their toes" so they never get used to one particular exercise pattern!
Good luck and stretch safe!