I like this question. I do. It always makes me laugh. We all know the unspoken question being asked here, right?… “Do I really have to stretch at all, and if so, how little can I do and still be okay?”
For those that read the article I wrote addressing the importance of warm up and cool down, my answer is very similar here: I find that the older I get, the more important stretching becomes (probably because I didn’t do enough when I was younger). Ideally stretching should be a part of our routine from the get-go. However, when bodies and minds are young the feelings of invincibility and rapidly recovering muscles often discourages it…so we are left with the aches and pains to enjoy 20 years later. Good deal, huh?
A couple quick background thoughts. First, why do we stretch? Most often the default answer is ‘to avoid injury.’ Understand, however, that most reviews of literature in the area of flexibility training would likely agree that there is not a strong correlation between static stretching (the type where you ‘hold’ the stretch) and acute injury reduction. Is it probable that it does help at all in the area? Sure. But not a primary result as per the literature. This begs the second question…if not for injury prevention, then why? The primary reasons we find in current literature center around improved posture, decreased chronic injury or pain (i.e. low back pain), improved movement economy (your body moves more efficiently and doesn’t fight itself), and decreased recovery time. And just like all other fitness or exercise-related questions, the goal of the ‘stretching’ or ‘flexibility’ training would determine the type of stretching and the appropriate placement in an exercise session. Here are the most common stretching techniques as well as when, how, and why to use them:
Static Stretching: This is what most people are familiar with. It is the stretch that you “hold.”
Goal: lengthen the muscle and associated connective tissue to allow greater range of motion. Necessary for maintaining proper posture and allowing full range of motion in activities of choice. Decreases recovery time.
How: with proper posture and alignment, stretch the muscle to the point of discomfort (not pain) and hold the position for at least 20-45 seconds. Keep the muscle relaxed and maintain slow relaxed breathing patterns. Perform 2-3 sets on appropriate muscles.
When: if you are only going to do it once during your routine, do it at the end of your workout. You can also stretch in between sets of an exercise to maximize your workout time. Also, it may be appropriate to stretch prior to exercise also. However, if you are focused on building strength or power, static stretching is not recommended between sets or immediately pre-activity as most research shows decrements in these variables for up to 60 minutes post stretching.
PNF or Neuromuscular Stretching: this is often referred to as the “Hold-Contract-Relax” method. Though there are other methods of Neuromuscular Stretching, this is the most common. Most literature would agree that, if done correctly, Neuromuscular Stretching is slightly more effective than is Static Stretching.
Goal: Same as Static Stretching but perhaps a more aggressive approach.
How: with proper posture and alignment, stretch the muscle to the point of discomfort (not pain) and hold the position for 5-10 seconds. Then perform an isometric contraction of the muscle being stretched (this will increase the feel of the stretch as well as decrease some of the neural inhibitors) for 5-10 seconds. Then, relax and take a deep breath and move to the new point of discomfort (this is usually 5-10 degrees further each time). Repeat this pattern 2 or 3 times. Keep the muscle relaxed and maintain slow relaxed breathing patterns. Perform 2-3 sets on appropriate muscles.
When: research here is similar to Static Stretching with respects to timing, and for similar reasons.
Dynamic Stretching: This is often referred to as calisthenics or movement-oriented warm up.
Goal: increase muscle and connective tissue temperature, range of motion, blood flow to the working muscles (more nutrient supply) and increase neural drive to working muscles. In essence, to prepare the muscle for the activity it is about to encounter.
How: in the simplest terms…start with small slow movements and gradually progress them to bigger and faster movements. Engaging in movements similar to that which you are about to engage in are most beneficial (i.e. don’t go skip to warm up for swimming). In attempting to warm up for most ground based sporting activities, movements like body weight squats, gradual sprint build ups, side slides, skipping, cariocca, etc. types of activities work well.
When: more research and applied science encourage this type of “flexibility” training pre-activity. Why? You don’t lose strength and power. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Why would you teach your muscle to relax (static stretch) before trying to get it to contract quickly and powerfully? I don’t know either. If you figure it out, let me know. Point?…prepare the body for what it is about to encounter. It may also be wise to perform this type of activity as a “cool down” post exercise to shuttle waste out of the body and decrease recovery time.
Self Myofascial Release: a technique that has come to some popularity over the past 5 years. It is ultimately utilizing various tools (a foam roller, a “Stick”) to apply self-massage. In truth, it is not stretching, per se, but it does have significant benefit for range of motion which is why it’s worth mentioning here.
Goal: to break down trigger points and/or knots within the muscle as well as adhesions between the fascia (tissue surrounding muscle) and muscle itself. When either of these are present, range of motion is affected due to inhibited neural communication with the muscle and connective tissue preventing movement.
How: utilize tools such as “The Stick,” a 6” Foam Roller, or anything relatively firm (tennis ball, medicine ball, etc.). If using a Foam Roller, lay the appropriate muscle atop the roller and attempt to work out any sensitive areas that are encountered. Use as much pressure from bodyweight as can be tolerated while maintaining a relaxed muscle and breathing pattern. Work out the worst areas first. Perform 2-3 sets of 30-60 seconds per muscle.
When: SMR techniques can be applied pre-exercise, in between exercise sets, or post exercise. If you only have time for one application, pre-exercise is probably the best option.
Apply these techniques to your program for 1-2 months and you will notice significant benefit.