There seems to be a lot of debate about stretching. Is there any real benefit to stretching? Do I need to stretch before playing sports? The New York Times just published an article called “ How Necessary is Stretching” which pointed out that runners who had tight hamstrings seemed to run easier (better running economy) and perform better.
Being a personal trainer and gym owner for over 25 years and attending numerous lectures on the subject, I have seen it come full circle. Many years ago when athletes were not really stretching everyone was advocating stretching to prevent injuries. Now there are numerous studies that show that static stretching before speed and strength activities inhibit muscle and temporarily make them weaker. If you talk to a yoga instructor they give numerous examples of students who feel stronger and healthier from the increased flexibility from practicing yoga.
Why I think there is so much confusion about stretching is that “all stretches are not created equal”. There are so many different ways to stretch just like there are so many different ways to train. Doing static stretching will produce a totally different result then active stretching or dynamic stretching. To determine which stretch protocol, if any, is best for you, you first have to determine your fitness goals.
Three Different Types of Stretching and How to Use Them:
Static Stretching: is what most people think of when talking about stretching. It involves passive relaxing and elongation of a muscle or muscles while holding it for 10 to 30 seconds. An example of a static stretch would be to put your heel up on a chair and let your hamstrings relax and elongate for 30 seconds. If you go to a gym you might see trainers passively stretching their clients on a treatment table. It seems like this type of stretching temporarily increases flexibility. For how long is hard to say, it depends on how often you do it. The negative is that there are many studies that conclude that static stretching before a speed or strength activity can inhibit or temporarily weaken the muscle being stretched. You have to decide if giving up a little strength is OK for the increase in flexibility. A ballerina might need extreme flexibility and be willing to give up a little bit of strength and stability for a performance but a 100-meter sprinter may not. A sprinter may want to do more of a dynamic warm-up. As a general rule I would save static stretching for after your sport or workout.
Active Stretching: is when the person stretching supplies the force or the contraction to the stretch. I like to call this contractile stretching. It can be dynamic with movement or static as a hold. I like active stretching very much. I think active stretching with a static hold, is one of the safest ways to stretch. When you are actively stretching you are really working out. It is very similar to performing isometric exercises, where you contract and hold a position. Its really safe because any position you can contract in to, is a safe position so you are building mobility and stability at the same time. Active stretching involves reciprocal inhibition, which means that when you contract one muscle or groups of muscles their antagonist has to relax and elongate. An example would be to stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart and rotate as far as you can one way and hold it. Half your body is contracting while the other half is elongating. I did a video called Safe Stretching, which explains active stretching in more detail. I don’t see any real down side of active stretching. You can do it anytime; before, during or after a workout or sport. If you are doing it as a warm-up; however, don’t over do it. It can tire you out because it’s a workout within itself.
Dynamic Stretching: involves using movement, most often sport specific movements to warm the body up and make it more elastic before an activity. Dynamic stretching is active stretching with movement. An example of dynamic stretching would be a sprinter performing high knee-ups with exaggerated arm movements while running to warm-up before a race. Besides opening up your range of motion from these movements you are also making a proprioceptive connection by patterning these movements. When you are moving, your muscles are always communicating with your central nervous system and sending messages to your brain. Dynamic warm-ups or stretches create better communication throughout your whole body. You’re actually warming up the wiring in your body. I think sport specific dynamic movement is a great idea before any activity. I don’t see any down side as long as you don’t force the range of motion or use too much momentum when stretching.
These are three different ways to stretch. Give them all a try and let me know what’s working best for you.
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Best – Mike Cola