by: Deion Clifton
Stretching is one of the best and easiest ways to care for your body. Building a limber body helps to protect from injury and maintain strength and flexibility into old age.
Different stretches are often used to support different modalities. Besides increasing flexibility, some other benefits of stretching involve an increased range of motion, improved performance, increased blood flow to the muscles, improved posture, stress relief, pain relief, and more.
There are several ways that you can practice stretching:
Dynamic stretching uses repeated, controlled movements and is typically done before exercise as a warm-up to prepare the body for movement.
When performing dynamic stretches, it’s customary to mimic the movements of the activity that you will be performing.
Benefits: This type of stretching helps to activate muscles, improve neuromuscular control, elevate core body temperature, accelerate energy production, and improve performance measures. Additionally, dynamic movements often utilize speed to help increase range of motion.
Example: Frankenstein Walks
Static stretching is a controlled physical activity that involves lengthening your muscle to a comfortable position and holding it for a prolonged period. Static stretching is most commonly performed after exercise and can be done sitting or standing. Holding a static stretch for longer than 5-6 seconds slowly “deactivates” the agonist, or primary, muscle being worked. Deactivated muscles do not absorb force as well, leaving surrounding joints and tendons vulnerable. This is why it is typically recommended to perform static stretches after a workout rather than before.
There are two types of static stretching:
- Active-static: a stretch performed without the assistance of external forces. This form of stretching is used to improve flexibility and mobility. Doing active stretches involve getting other muscles involved while holding the stretch.
- Passive-static: a stretch performed with the help of an external force. This external force can be a partner or a prop. The goal is to use the external pressure to relax your body into a deep stretch, intensifying it.
Imagine playing music through a speaker:
Dynamic stretching is the equivalent of quickly turning the volume all the way up and all the way back down again. This stretch really activates the muscles, but only for short spurts of time.
Static stretching is the equivalent of turning the volume up high, then slowly lowering it. The longer you hold a stretch, the more your muscles become inhibited or deactivated as they become accustomed to the stretched position (keep reading to learn more about this).
Benefits: Static stretching improves the range of motion in the joint, reduces stiffness and pain in muscles, reduces the risk of muscle strains, improves body posture, and increases circulation.
Example: Seated Toe Touch – can be performed manually (active-static) or using a band or strap (passive-static).
Ballistic stretching involves jerking your body from the end range of a stretch quickly and repeatedly to increase the range of motion.
Fitness professionals, more often than not, advise against using this technique because they almost all universally agree that the risks outweigh the benefits. According to Healthline, the risks of ballistic stretching include muscle strain, pulled muscles, or even damage to soft tissues around the joints which can develop into tendonitis.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
PNF uses the aid of a partner to implement resistance at various points in a stretch. By adding resistance, you can trick your body into interpreting the physiology of the movement differently. While this can produce increased range of motion, it can also have poor results if done improperly. PNF should generally only be performed with help from a physical therapist or fitness professional.
A Physiological Perspective
While stretching, the body can change the material properties of tissues; it can change water content or influence some stem cells that live in the tendon material to create elongated protein structures such as collagen. This increases flexibility in your muscles and all the surrounding tissues, though muscles tend to gain flexibility faster than the other tissues around them.
It all starts with the sarcomere, a unit of muscle fibers. There are two major proteins that make up sarcomere: actin, a fibrous protein, and myosin, a molecular motor protein. These two protein filaments are fundamentally responsible for muscular contraction, which occurs as thin actin filaments on either side slide toward the center of the thick myosin filaments, closing the gap between one another. During this process, the sarcomere is actively shortening.
The more the sarcomere shortens, the more the area of overlap between actin and myosin will increase. Conversely, the more the sarcomere stretches, the more the area of overlap will decrease, allowing elongation in the muscle fiber. The force of an additional stretch will be placed on the surrounding tissue.
The muscle spindles in each muscle stretch alongside the muscle and send signals up the spine to the central nervous system. The information they send helps the central nervous system (CNS) convey information, such as how fast a stretch is performed and changes in length. This is all part of a reflex that triggers contraction. This reflex is what helps protect us from injury.
Remember how static stretching can “deactivate” the elongated muscle? When you hold a stretch for a long time, the signals sent from the muscle spindle to the CNS decrease. This happens because the Golgi tendon organ (GTO), located in tendons, is activated after holding a low-force stretch. The activation of the GTO temporarily reduces tension because the GTO is what receives information from the tendon and sends that information to the CNS. With the focus now on the GTO, the muscle can now relax in the stretch. With the muscle relaxed and no longer contracted, this takes the pressure off the tendons and other surrounding tissues, allowing for a slow, gradual descent into the stretch.
Static stretching influences the nervous system by training your spinal reflexes and stretch receptors, allowing for a gradual increase in muscle lengthening over time.
Stretching should not feel painful. You should feel a slight pull in your muscles when performing stretches. Don’t overexert your muscles from overextension. Overextension can cause microtears to form, creating a muscle strain (otherwise known as a pulled muscle). Just as you can hurt yourself by lifting too much weight, you can also hurt yourself by overexerting muscles through stretching.
The severity of a pulled muscle depends on how many microtears occurred. Strains are categorized into three grades:
- A mild strain in which only a few minor muscle fibers were torn. Soreness, tenderness, and slight inflammation may occur.
- A moderate strain affects more muscle fibers than a mild strain. Expect to experience more severe pain, tenderness, inflammation, and bruising.
- A severe strain occurs when the muscle is torn or separated from the tendon. You can expect to experience severe pain, swelling, bruising, and complete loss of muscle function.
The Bottom Line
Stretching can be beneficial to even the everyday person. Building a regular stretch routine will help to improve your range of motion and posture, therefore helping to reduce the likelihood of muscle-related injuries. The type of stretching you do matters just as much. What is your goal? Why are you stretching? If you’re stretching to prepare for intense movement and activity, lean more toward dynamic stretches. Static stretches are your friend if you’re trying to increase your range of motion or overall flexibility!