Different Types of Stretching Explained
Stretching can be confusing even for athletes involved in comprehensive stretching programs. Most people acknowledge that it's good to do for some reason, but understanding the specifics about how, when, and what type of stretching to do isn't overly intuitive. Additionally, factors like injuries, age, and recreation vs. competition can further add to the confusion.
The goal of this article is to provide a brief overview of the different types of stretches and when they are appropriate to do them. We'll try and keep as simple as possible, hopefully allowing you to gain some ideas of how you can incorporate stretching into your routine.
1. Static Stretching
This is arguably the most popular type of stretching and is what most people think of when discussing stretching. This type of stretching involves positioning the body in a way that lengthens the muscles crossing a particular joint, holding that position for some time, and then returning to a neutral position.
The Take-Home Message: Static stretching is a great ways to improve your general flexibility. It can be used to help improve your posture, recover from injury, and prevent injury by preparing you for your next workout.
That being said, many athletes avoid static stretching immediately prior to activities that require explosive power. Some studies have shown that performing static stretching immediately prior to a sprint-type event can reduce peak power output by up to 8%. This is why many reserve it for after the workout, but for those participating in recreational activity or endurance events, static stretching before the event can still be beneficial.
Here are a few examples of some popular static stretches:
Muscles Stretched: Hamstrings and Back
Notes: This stretch is often used by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the Canadian Physical Activity, Fitness and Lifestyle Approach (CPAFLA) as an indicator of overall flexibility, which is considered a factor of fitness. These muscles are chronically tight in many individuals, athletes and general population alike, and can become increasingly tight after surgeries like an ACL surgery.
One thing you need to be careful of when doing this stretch is not overdoing it, which is really something that can be applied to all stretches. When reaching towards your toes, move very slowly and do not exceed the point where you begin to feel the stretch. It may feel slightly uncomfortable at first, but it should never feel painful. If it does, back of and shorten the stretch. Over time, you will become more and more flexible, and you will notice that you can gradually lengthen this stretch as you progress.
Piriformis Wall Stretch
Muscles Stretched: Piriformis
Notes: There are many different ways you can perform this stretch, but I find using a wall to be the most comfortable, as well as the best way to make slight adjustments to target the piriformis.
The piriformis is a small muscle that you may or may not have heard about before. It originates on the lower portion of the spine and inside the pelvis. it travels through the greater sciatic notch (an opening in the pelvis bone), and inserts on the greater trochanter of the femur, which is essentially the very top of your femur bone around the area of the hip joint.
As you can probably tell, this is a little confusing, and given the multiple origin sites and the fact that we can't see the piriformis from the outside, it makes isolating this muscle for stretching rather difficult. So why bother?
The main reason is that when the piriformis becomes overly tight it can begin to compress the sciatic nerve, which travels under the piriformis. The sciatic nerve is a large nerve originating in the lower spine, and as it travels through the pelvis and down the leg, it branches out to form a bunch of other nerves, ultimately supplying a lot of the muscles in the lower limbs.
When the sciatic nerve becomes compressed, it can lead to a lot of pain in the lower limbs (buttock, back of thigh, calf, even down to the toes), a condition often known as sciatica. Gently stretching the piriformis is one method of alleviating this pain. Furthermore, alleviating pain in the lower body can help get you on track towards improving back posture as well.
Muscles Stretched: Quadriceps (front of thigh)
Notes: This is a very common stretch that you will often see runners doing before and after going for a jog. The quadriceps are involved in every activity that requires walking, jogging, running, jumping, etc, and as such, they can be chronically tight.
The stretch for these muscles is quite simple. The easiest way to do it is by holding on to a railing or wall, bringing the opposite foot up to the back of your leg and holding it with the free hand. By gently pulling back, you can lengthen the quadriceps, which cross over the front of the knee joint and attach to the top portion of the front of the shin via a connection known as the patellar tendon. One portion of the quadriceps also crosses the front of the hip joint, so you may feel the stretch there as well.
One word of caution: Try not to swing your leg out to the side, and don't "yank" too hard on your foot. Gentle and progressive is always the way, and by deviating from the natural line or by yanking on the limbs, you can increase your risk of hurting yourself. If it's easier, you can also perform this stretch either laying on your side, as well as laying on your belly (see below).
Muscles Stretched: Pectoralis Major and Pecotralis Minor
Notes: There are numerous ways to stretch your chest muscles. Generally speaking, this usually involves "opening-up" your chest. For example, if you are laying on a bench on your back and you hol dyour arms straight out to the side, you will feel a stretch running through your chest due to gravity pulling your arms down. This can be a little uncomfortable for some, but we just wanted to use this example as an illustration of how those muscles can become stretched.
One of the easiest ways to stretch your chest muscles is to hold your arm out to your side and hold on to something, whether it be a pole, door frame, or anything that you can easily grasp. Then, gently rotate your body away from the object that you are holding until you feel a nice stretch in your chest on the side of the extended arm. Hold this position for approximately 30 seconds and then switch to the other arm.
2. Dynamic Stretching
Dynamic stretching is slightly less familiar for many people, but it's actually fairly simple, so try not to be intimidated by it. Essentially, dynamic stretching involves stretching a muscle group while physically moving a body part. Perhaps the most simple example of this is swinging your leg back and forth. While holding on to a railing, gently swinging your leg back and forth while trying to keep it as relaxed as possible is a method of stretching the muscles while encouraging neuromuscular coordination at the same time.
The Take-Home Message: Dynamic stretching is thought to alleviate the potential power reduction that may potentially occur immediately after static stretching. Therefore, many athletes prefer this form of stretching for immediately before their activity, while reserving static stretching for after their workout or event. Additionally, recreational and competitive athletes tend to like it because it also acts as an additional component of their warm up. By continuing to move the body you keep the blood flowing, and some people like the coordination aspect of this stretching as well.
Here are some examples of dynamic stretches:
Muscles Stretched: Hamstrings, Quadriceps, Hip Flexors (abductors/adductors for lateral swings).
Notes: As mentioned above, leg swings are fairly simple. You can perform the back-and-forth ones that we mentioned above, which are quite popular. You can also adjust this slightly by performing lateral leg swings, which help to target the abductors and adductors (groin and muscles on the side of your thigh). Just be careful to not exceed your comfortable range of motion. Additionally, only do these stretches after a sufficient warm-up, as there is a higher risk of inadvertently causing a jerky movement, which can tweak a muscle.
Muscles Stretched: Shoulders, Back (lats)
Notes: These are also relatively simple, but we would like to add a couple additonal notes tot he video below. First, try to engage your core and maintain a proper posture while performing this stretch. Also, make sure you have completed at least a short warm-up prior to performing these stretches, just to make your muscles are sufficiently warm and the blood is flowing.
Also, these stretches can be extended to full arm circles. For example, I like to to extend the stretch in the video below to a full rotation, but while still keeping it relatively slow, gentle, and relaxed, which I find helps loosen and warm up my shoulder a bit more. That said, only go this far if you feel comfortable enough with it and are not dealing with any upper body injuries.
3. PNF Stretching
PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. While many of these stretches can be performed on your own, this requires a relatively advanced level of experience with this form of stretching in order to be performed safely and effectively. Therefore, to being with, it's highly encourage you begin by performing these stretches with an experienced partner.
The Take-Home Message: This type of stretching is essentially a combination between static stretching and dynamic stretching, but with some added forceful contractions of the muscle group you are stretching. The latter component is typically why this should be performed with a a partner, and why it can take a little getting used to at the beginning. That said, it's a very effective way of increasing the flexibility of a particular muscle group in a fairly short amount of time.
Examples of PNF Stretches
To explain this stretching, let consider the hamstrings. While there are many variations of this particular technique, I find the easiest way to do this is to lie on your back, lift up one of your legs, and place the back of your heel on a partners shoulder (your partner is crouched down facing you). Then, your partner will gently push your heel in the direction of your head, very gradually lengthening the hamstring muscles. It's very important to maintain communication so that you can stop as soon as you feel a slight stretch.
Once you reach this point, you will hold this passive (relaxed) stretch for about 10-15 seconds. Then, forcefully push your heel down on your partners shoulder, maintaining a straight leg, so you're basically using your hamstrings to push on his/her shoulder for 5-8 seconds. *NOTE: Some find this technique a little more effective by having the partner allow your leg to gradually returning to the floor, which is a concentric contraction of the hamstring muscles. Then, your partner will push your leg a little further along in your range of motion. You may be surprised at how much further you can actually go now. Repeat this a couple times, being extra careful not to over-do it
These are the three main different types of stretches. Depending on your level of activity and flexibility, some may be more suitable than others. The main thing to remember is to be cautious and gentle, stretching more frequently and gently if necessary. By incorporating regular stretching into your routine, you can reduce your risk of injury and enhance your level of fitness at the same time. Enjoy!