Many folks beginning an exercise or physical therapy regimen are given a specific set of exercises, but these instructions don’t always come with proper guidance on the stretching that should accompany the program. To ensure that you can either avoid – or avoid exacerbating – injuries, here’s a comprehensive guide to different types of stretching and their benefits.
Active stretching techniques require adopting and holding a position or pose using only the muscles in the corresponding group to the one being targeted. Consider an ankle being flexed back and forth as examples, but the calf muscles involved in holding toes in a pointed position or raised toward the shin are referred to as the “agonist” and “antagonist,” as they perform opposing functions. In any stretch, the agonist muscle is the one contracting and the antagonist is the one lengthening.
While this technique can be applied all over the body, allow the limbs or joints in question to move naturally through their full range of motion, holding at each end. This is ideal when warming up in preparation for an activity, rather than lengthening the muscle as part of a proactive program to improve flexibility.
For most folks, images of “stretching” tend to conjure passive techniques. Whether the pose is held by hand or with gravity, one is largely stationary and exerts a force to lengthen the target muscle by reaching the outer limits of the range of motion.
Consider bending at the waist for a toe touch, but these hamstring stretches are typically performed incrementally, holding a position or pose for more than 30 seconds, before progressing to a deeper stretch and holding. Poses that can be held for a long time are likely an indication that the muscle isn’t reaching its outer capabilities, and warrant a gradual, deeper stretch.
While Passive Stretching is ideal for promoting overall flexibility and balance, the prolonged extension of muscles prior to intense activity can hinder explosive abilities, making it a better choice for cooling down after a workout rather than immediately prior to major exertion.
Dynamic techniques are a bit more lively, putting the body in motion and relying on momentum to flow through a series of repeated movements. Consider a hamstring stretch in which the leg is swung upward in a kick through its range of motion, but gradually increasing in height with each pass. It’s important to know the limits of the regular range of motion, as excess momentum can put the limb in a compromising over extended position likely to cause injury.
A baseball player or someone preparing for a throwing motion might begin their shoulder warm-up with widening, concentric arm circles, expanding the range of motion bit by bit until the regular full range is accounted for.
PNF stretching, short for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, is a set of techniques most commonly encountered in a rehabilitation setting to restore range of motion to an injured or weakened muscle.
Begin by moving the limb in question or target muscle into a stretched position, and then contract that muscle group for 4-6 seconds while a helper or fixed object (like a wall or table) provides resistance that keeps everything in place. Release the contraction, and hold the stretched pose in place for 20-30 seconds before shaking loose and taking another 30-45 seconds to relax completely and then repeat in cycles.
By combining both passive and active fundamentals, PNF stretching can be a highly effective “best of both worlds” choice, making for a safe set of exercises ideal for recovery.
Stretching is all about improving performance and preventing injury, so in order to really enjoy the benefits it’s imperative that one understand when each is most applicable, and not get overzealous trying to speed up gradual improvements!