The pro’s and cons of different stretching methods

Stretching is often done as a form of warming up before exercise,Stretching methods to decrease the risk of sports injury or to increase the range of motion of muscles and joints. Although there are several different stretching methods, the most performed method is static stretching. Other forms of stretching are balistic stretching, dynamic stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). This article gives an overview of these different stretching methods and their specific advantages and disadvantages and advice when to use them.

Static stretching

Description

Static stretching is the best known form of stretching. While performing static stretching a relaxed muscle is brought under tension. This tension is maintained for longer periods of time (mostly around 30 seconds) after which tension slowly decreases. A well known example is reaching for the floor while standing with extended knees.

Advantages

-Effective in increasing range of motion

Disadvantages

-Increased risk of injury when performed before strength or endurance training.

-Decreased maximum strength when performed before strength training.

-Decreased long term training effect when performed before or during strength training.

Advice

When you want to increase range of motion static stretching can be vey useful. This is best done within one hour after finishing strength or endurance training. Then the negative effects on performance and risk of injury are no longer a concern and the muscles and tendons are already warmed up. Static stretching performed on a day without any other training can be very useful as wel. Make sure to warm up properly beforehand.

Ballistic stretching

Description

Ballistic stretching shortly brings muscles at great length by employing fast and powerful movements. Contrary to static stretching, maximum muscle length is not maintained because the limbs move back immediately. An example of ballistic stretching is quickly swinging an extended leg forward until the movement is stopped by muscles and tendons that reach their maximum length.

Advantages

-Can be used as a warming up.

Disadvantages

-By activating the stretch refelx (myotatic reflex) the muscles can’t relax and range of motion does not increase.

-The large peak tension on muscles and tendons caused by the powerful bouncing movements increase risk of injury.

-Decrease in maximum strength when performed before strength training.

Advice

Aside from using ballistic stretching as a form of continued warming up it is generally not recommended to perform this form of stretching.

Dynamic stretching

Description

Dynamic stretching uses sports-specific movement to prepare the body for the activity to come. Contrary to static stretching it does not concentrate on stretching one single muscle, but rather to simulate movements that are important for a certain activity or sports. An example of dynamic stretching is lifting one knee as high as possible while walking as preparation of a 100m sprint. Dynamic stretching differs from ballistic stretching in that dynamic stretching actively stretches the muscles within their normal and therefore safe range of motion. Ballistic stretching uses the speed of a body part to passively stretch muscles even beyond their normal functioning range of motion.

Advantages

-Increases Range of Motion, especially in sports-specific movements.

-An effective and safe way to warm up the muscles prior to exercise.

-Small acute increases in maximum strength compared to no specific warming up or other stretching methods.

Disadvantages

-Less effective in increasing Range of Motion than Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation.

Advice

Dynamic stretching is a very useful, effective and safe method for warming up the muscles prior to exercise. Perform dynamic stretching movements before starting your workout. These movements must strongly resemble the exercise or activity you want to perform. Movement speed remains low and the movements have to go through the full range of motion.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation

Description

One of the less known forms of stretching is proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). PNF was originally developped as a method to relax overly tense or active muscles. It proved to be a very effective method to increase ROM as well. There are several different PNF methods of which this is one example: A muscle group is passively stretched with the aid of a partner. When the muscle is passively stretched for around 10 seconds, the muscle is strongly activated for around 6 seoncds while the partner makes sure no movement occurs. Then the muscle relaxes again and the partner passively stretches the muscle even further and maintains tension in the muscle for 30 seconds.

An example of a PNF stretching exercise to increase range of motion in the hamstrings is lying on your back with one leg pointing upwards. A partner carefully pushes the extended leg in the direction of the head of the one lying down. When the hamstrings are activated the partner prevents movement by keeping the leg in place. After the hamstrings relax again, the partner carefully pushes the leg even further towards the head.

Advantages

-Large increases in range of motion.

Disadvantages

-For most exercises a partner is necessary.

-Decreases in maximum strength after performing PNF.

Advice

When range of motion has to be increased, PNF is a very useful method. Because the large amount of stress on the muscles it is best to perform it on a seperate day instead of a training day. Just like static stretching a proper warm up beforehand is necessary.

References

-Baechle, T.R., Earle, W.R. (2008). Resistance Training. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Third Edition. USA. Human Kinetics.