Stretching, flexibility and mobility
Flexibility and mobility are important components of a long and healthy life. And stretching plays a big role. It improves the range of motion at every joint. That’s huge: Poor range of motion can limit flexibility and ultimately hinder a person’s ability to move.
It should come as no surprise that moving comfortably, whether you’re walking around the office or playing a game of basketball, can help you enjoy life more. Stretching techniques — along with general activity, foam rolling, and interventions in physical therapy, chiropractic, and even cognitive training — all provide a resource.
There is no one-size-fits-all activity to best improve flexibility. The best stretching intervention for you depends on a lot of things, including your fitness level, lifestyle, age, injuries or illnesses, gender, and exercise goals.
Research supports a wide range of useful options. That said, two of the most accessible and most researched methods for improving flexibility are static and dynamic stretching. Just about anyone can incorporate these simple approaches into their weekly routines without outside help. When used correctly, they can both help improve range of motion, flexibility and mobility.
Before starting a pre-workout stretch, learn when and how to use static versus dynamic stretching.
Types of stretching
There are four basic styles of stretching: static, dynamic, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), and ballistic.
Ballistic stretching uses bouncing motions to push the body beyond its natural range of motion. It has fallen out of favor because it is less effective than other styles and more prone to injury.
PNF stretching is intended to improve flexibility and range of motion, but it is best performed with a trained partner, making it more difficult to perform at home.
Then the most commonly used forms of stretching remain: static and dynamic.
Both are easy to perform yourself, have research supporting their effectiveness, and are unlikely to cause injury if done correctly. Their accessibility, safety and effectiveness make them good stretching techniques for the average person to incorporate into their exercise routine.
Static vs Dynamic Stretching
The obvious and obvious difference between the two forms of shelving is in the name. Static stretching exercises are performed without movement. You just hold a stretch and relax into it. Dynamic stretches are performed while moving.
This fundamental difference explains the specific benefits and results of each type of stretch. So yes, both styles of stretching can help you improve your flexibility and range of motion. But how you use each type will depend on your training goals.
(Check out these dynamic and static leg stretches.)
What is static stretching?
When you think of stretching, you probably think of static stretching. It is the traditional form of stretching that has long been used in physical education and sports, and it is often added at the beginning or end of a training session.
“An example of a static stretch is a hamstring stretch on a quadruped,” says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, founder of Movement Vault. “You have your hands and your back knee on the mat while the leg you are extending is in front of you. To increase the stretch, push your hips back until you feel a maximum stretch in the back of your front leg. From here you just hold, relax and breathe deeply.”
Other examples could be a forward fold (you know, bend and touch your toes), a standing quad stretch, or an overhead triceps stretch. Regardless of which stretch you perform, the hallmark of a static stretch is that you don’t move the joint you’re stretching. You simply maintain a stable position to the point of mild discomfort (but no pain!) and allow yourself to relax into it.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests holding each stretch for between 15 and 30 seconds, repeating up to four sets.
When to include static stretching?
Static stretching is an excellent form of flexibility training to include at the end of your workout routine or as a standalone program that you complete after you warm up your muscles.
“One of your main goals with static stretching is to relax your entire body,” Wickham says. “This helps reduce sympathetic nervous system response and muscle tone, allowing you to go deeper into the stretch.”
If you perform it regularly, you’ll see an increase in range of motion at the muscles and joints you target.
(Try this full-body stretching routine that can be done statically or dynamically.)
When to avoid static stretching?
For many years, static stretching was promoted as a tool to prevent injury before a workout. The idea was that if you stretched before a workout, you were less likely to pull a muscle during your routine.
In practice, that is not the case, at least not when it comes to static stretching. This is largely because static stretching does nothing to raise the body’s core temperature or promote increased blood flow to the muscles you target.
You are essentially stretching a cold muscle and joint. What you want to promote before a workout is active mobility, not static flexibility. That is, you need to warm up and prepare your working muscles for the task ahead, not just standing (or sitting) and holding a stretch.
“When it comes to increasing and improving mobility, static stretching isn’t the most effective stretching technique to use,” Wickham says. “Static stretching has been shown to increase the risk of injury and decrease performance when performed before an athletic effort or workout.”
In other words, static stretching before a workout, like you used to do in elementary school gym class (and maybe still out of habit), can actually be counterproductive to your goals.
Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C
What is Dynamic Stretching?
The conditions dynamic stretch and dynamic warm-ups are often used interchangeably. And for good reason: dynamic stretching is best at the beginning of a workout as a way to warm up and prepare for your routine.
And while dynamic stretches may not look like the stretches you’re used to, they’re meant to get you to the end of your natural range of motion and back again. They are active movements that increase blood flow and prepare your muscles for work.
“An example of a dynamic stretch is performing high kicks with straight legs,” Wickham says. “To perform this exercise, you need to stand as tall as you can and kick one leg forward as high as you can while keeping your knee straight. This stretch contracts your hip flexors and stretches your hamstrings.”
How to do dynamic stretching exercises?
There are two important things to keep in mind about dynamic stretches. First, you go to the end of your natural range of motion at a particular joint without trying to push past it. The goal is to feel a slight stretch of the muscles and joints you’re targeting without overstretching or overexaggerating it.
Second, the movement should always be controlled and not use momentum. “Because dynamic stretching involves actively moving your body and joints, you can cause a minor injury if you move through a large range of motion too quickly,” Wickham warns.
In the straight leg high kick example, you don’t forcefully swing your leg back and forth or use your torso or other muscles to propel your leg to Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader-level high kicks. Instead, stand straight and tall, isolating the leg you’re stretching and pedaling steadily so that the top and bottom of the stairs are completely under your control.
Eventually you would perform 10 to 20 kicks per side and continue with other dynamic stretches to target other muscles and joints. And you would keep your intensity lower for the first few reps, gradually increasing the intensity.
Dynamic stretches include regular athletic moves such as squats, lunges, and pushups performed at a lower intensity or without weight. They also include sequences of motion, such as a yoga sun salutation or a transition from a plank to a standing position.
When performing dynamic stretches before a workout, it’s important to focus on stretching the muscles and joints you’ll be using during your workout to effectively prepare your body for work.
Courtesy of Laura Williams Bustos, MSEd., ACSM EP-C
When to include dynamic stretching?
“Dynamic stretching can be performed at any time and is especially effective when performed before an athletic effort or workout,” Wickham says. “Dynamic stretching improves your proprioception [body awareness]contracts specific muscles and prepares your nervous system for a sport, workout or movement you are about to perform.”
You can stretch dynamically for a specified number of reps or a specified length of time. You can do a dynamic exercise of 10 to 20 reps or 20 to 40 seconds before moving on to the next move.
Stretching for recovery
One of the other long-held beliefs about stretching is that it helps reduce muscle soreness after a workout and facilitates recovery.
To some extent this is true. But it’s not because the stretching reduces the pain. Instead, stretching can boost mobility and blood and oxygen flow to the muscles you’ve worked. This, in turn, helps the body remove waste products and provide nutrients for cell renewal and regeneration.
However, it’s not just stretching that facilitates recovery. If you really want to reduce the after-effects of a hard workout, approach your entire routine with a quick recovery mind. According to the ACSM, this means including a dynamic stretch before your workout, a cool-down and static stretch after your workout, and additional protocols such as foam rolling, massage, cold therapy. Add to that the right nutrition, hydration and sleep for after your workout.