So what’s the deal with stretching these days? Should we stretch before or after a workout? How long should we stretch and what’s the best way to do it? Is stretching even effective or necessary? What are the benefits of stretching? These are all valid questions that hopefully have crossed your mind at some point along your health and fitness journey. We’ll aim to cover these questions and more in this Stretching 101 blog series, so stay tuned.
Everyone has heard a friend say “I just have to stretch more” or “Ugh! I’m so bad about
stretching!” These comments often come when that friend is feeling pain, tightness, or some other discomfort with a movement or position they’re struggling to get into- in other words, they’re feeling inflexible. While stretching is certainly not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way to improve these movements or positions, your friend isn’t wrong- stretching should probably be a more normal part of their routine… and yours!
Now, I know that I just mentioned that there may be even better ways to improve your flexibility, but we’ll focus on stretching here for a few reasons: #1: it’s a common practice for which recommendations and protocols have been changing dramatically over the years, #2: it’s a useful tool for many health, fitness and performance, and rehab goals, and #3: it’s free, safe, and completely accessible to everyone.
Let's first take a quick second to define stretching and flexibility.
Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle group is deliberately elongated in order to improve the muscle's flexibility and achieve comfortable muscle tone.
Flexibility is the ability of muscles and soft tissues to move through an unrestricted and pain-free range of motion (ROM).
Importantly, it’s worth noting that flexibility is not the same as mobility, as mobility involves more than just a muscle’s ability to stretch.
Flexibility is however an important component of mobility and therefore of strength, performance, and simply our ability to move around without pain or restriction day to day. It’s helpful to imagine the analogy of an onion- if mobility is at the core of the onion, the flexibility of our muscles is generally one of the outermost layers. You have to peel that outer layer before you get to the next one, which may be a restriction of other connective tissues around a joint, the control or strength to produce movement, or the joint’s mobility itself among other limiting factors.
Next, let’s define some of the more common types of stretching.
Static stretching is what most people classically think of when we talk about stretching. It involves descending slowly into and holding stretch positions usually near a muscle’s end ROM. This type of stretching aims to minimize use of momentum/movement while under stretch and can be done either actively (under one’s own power) or passively (with the use of external support or assistance).
Dynamic stretching entails the use of actively controlled movement though a muscle’s ROM into a stretch. It typically involves various functional movement patterns specific to a certain activity. These movements/stretches are never held in one position for more than a second or two.
Ballistic stretching is really a subcategory of dynamic stretching, which similarly involves movement into and out of stretched positions, though ballistic stretching is characterized by its use of momentum or “bouncing” into end ROMs. It is generally more aggressive and less actively controlled and therefore carries some risk of injury if your muscles are not conditioned for this type of end ROM stress.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching involves leveraging neural circuits in our bodies in order to excite or inhibit muscles to achieve a greater ROM. There are several different types of PNF stretching, but they generally involve the contraction of a certain muscle group, followed by a passive/static stretch of either that same muscle or the opposing muscle. (We’ll dive deeper into this in a future blog- it’s cool stuff.)
So without further ado, let’s answer one of the most common questions:
When should we stretch?
As always, it depends on several factors: why are you stretching and what kind of stretch are you performing. Let’s break it down into before and after exercise.
Generally speaking, static and PNF stretching should not be performed prior to exercise, as it can reduce the elasticity and contractility of those muscles- in other words, it may incrementally reduce your strength or performance. There are exceptions of course, mainly for when discomfort or inflexibility of a muscle group would create even more significant performance limitations. Bottom line: Use static and PNF stretching techniques when you need to improve your ability to get into a proper position or movement for your workout/activity. Otherwise, save it for later.
Whereas static and PNF stretching are more aimed at increasing your flexibility/ROM about a certain muscle group/joint, dynamic stretching is more effective in getting your body/muscles ready for a specific movement or position. These stretches will often involve the exact or at least similar movements to what is in your upcoming workout, so in addition to warming up and increasing your muscles’ ROMs, there is the critical component of neural activation which is arguably the most important benefit of dynamic stretching and the reason to include it in your pre-workout routine.
At this point, you’re probably expecting to hear that static stretching is an absolute must in order to reduce post exercise soreness or tightness, etc., but similarly to pre-exercise recommendations, static stretching is an option, not necessarily a requirement for everyone.
Static and PNF stretching after a workout should certainly be included in a few cases:
#1: It feels good. For many people, stretching makes muscles and the body just feel good, which is often needed after a relatively uncomfortable bout of exercise. It can be a great way to cool down and regulate your breathing and muscle tone in order to go about your day, so go ahead, lay on your mat and stretch it out for a while.
#2: Muscles might really need it. Like your pre-exercise routine, certain muscle groups may require some extra attention to increase flexibility, reduce tone (relax a muscle in spasm), or improve various sensations of discomfort. In other words, static/PNF stretching can be an effective tool in restoring balance and comfort to your muscles and movement after you push it to the limits.
#3: It’s easier when you’re warm. I’m sure we can all agree that stretching can feel relatively uncomfortable early in the day or before we really get moving. You’ll probably tolerate and be able stretch further into your ROM when your muscles have been moving and warmed up, which ultimately makes stretching more productive.
In summary, stretching can be an extremely useful and important tool for us to improve our flexibility and therefore mobility, performance, comfort, movement quality, etc. and for most, should be a part of the normal routine. More importantly than learning a specific stretching routine and sticking to it, it is valuable to understand how and when to apply certain stretching techniques so that you can effectively address movement limitations as they come. The overall recommendation: stretch when you feel that you need to (or if your PT tells you to!), and like with most exercises, movements, and positions we find ourselves in, if it feels good, go for it.