Stretching – what you need to know

There is a lot of controversy around stretching, there are many ways to perform various stretches and differing opinions on how beneficial it can be. This blog is going to outline the various stretching techniques, how to perform each of them and explains how they can help. 

Stretches can be categorised into dynamic (performed with movement) and static (performed with no movement). Below is a list of the various types of stretches within these two categories: 

  • Active stretching
  • Passive stretching 
  • Ballistic stretching 
  • Dynamic stretching 
  • Isometric stretching
  • PNF stretching

Each of these stretches have pro’s and con’s when performing them in different sporting scenarios. Before we get to each of the stretches individually, it is important to know that some movement patterns and some of the muscles in the human body work with ‘reciprocal inhibition’, this means that whilst one muscle (the agonist) is working to move a limb, the opposing side (the antagonist) can lengthen because it is in a relaxed state. For example, in the upper arm, whilst the bicep works to bend the elbow, the tricep is relaxed to allow it to happen. This will become more clear as the types of stretches are explained. 

Active stretching

This is a static stretch and is performed without any assistance, the stretch is reached and held by the agonist muscles contracting to move the limb to its end range therefore producing a stretch on the antagonistic muscle. Let’s use a hamstring stretch as an example here, if you lift one leg keeping the knee straight and the rest of the body still, the quadriceps are contracting to pull the leg into position which in turn allows the hamstrings to relax and increase in length. This type of stretch can also be beneficial in strengthening the agonistic muscle. It is a very safe way to stretch because there is no force causing the muscle to stretch beyond its end range, however it is limited due to the fact it relies on the strength of the contracting muscle. 

Passive stretching

This is also a static stretch variation and is achieved when the limb can completely relax into the stretch by using either another body part, a partner or an external object to support. For example, using the same hamstring stretch as in the active stretch above, however this time ask a partner to step in and take the full weight of your leg. The quadriceps can now completely relax and so do not limit the achievable range, you can also take the hamstring into a greater stretch by adjusting the height of the object. This type of stretch is very useful for post workout, when the muscles are warm, and you can gently push them towards their end range. It can help in injury rehabilitation and reducing muscle fatigue after exercise. 

Ballistic stretching 

This is a type of dynamic stretch and is performed by quick successions of ‘bouncing’ into and out of a stretch. By using momentum you can attempt to force the muscle beyond its natural range of motion, for example, bending over to touch the toes and then adding a bounce at the bottom of the movement. This type of stretch is widely suggested to be unsafe and has a high potential to lead to injury. 

Dynamic stretching

This is done by gradually increasing the range and/or speed of a moving body part. Again if we take the hamstring as an example, leg swings can be done by gently swinging the leg straight up in front of you and allowing the momentum of the leg to swing behind before it comes up in front of you again. It is an effective way to warm the muscles up and gradually take them into a greater range of motion by swinging the leg higher each time. There is no force beyond end range in this form of stretching and so is considered to be one of the safer ways to improve dynamic flexibility prior to training. 

Isometric stretching 

The term isometric is usually used in strength related discussions, because it is a type of muscular contraction when the muscle engages but does not change in length. Therefore, this is a static stretch whereby there is a muscular contraction, in the muscle you are looking to stretch, against an external object. For example, whilst you are laying on your back with one leg in the air to stretch the hamstring, ask a partner to step in and resist your attempt to force your leg back down to the ground. This type of stretch is one of the quickest ways to increase short term flexibility, it is more effective than either active or passive stretching alone and can be useful in reducing the pain that is commonly associated with stretching. 

PNF stretching 

PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, it is not strictly a type of stretch but a combination of isometric and passive stretching. It is performed most successfully with a partner, using the hamstring as the example again here. Laying on your back, the muscle is taken into a passive stretch (see ‘passive stretching’), you then isometrically contract the hamstrings against a resistance whilst in a stretched position (see ‘isometric stretching’) and then the muscle is relaxed and taken back into a passive stretch which results in increased range of movement. This process is repeated 3-5 times. It is not recommended for children or people whose bones are still growing. There are many benefits of this type of stretch, the main one being increased strength in the muscles that are contracted which in turn improves both active and passive flexibility. 

Overall, stretching can most certainly help in various situations, whether that be warming up before exercise, reducing the intensity of muscular fatigue post workout, recovering from injury or simply improving flexibility. It is important to choose the right form of stretching to target your specific needs. You can learn more about stretching here

We understand that you may not feel comfortable attending appointments in the current climate or due to shedding you may be unable to, so we are now offering online physiotherapy from the comfort of your own home. If you have any queries about stretching and how it may benefit you, then give us a call today.