Hey readers! I am so thankful you are here! In this month's post, I will give a relatively brief overview of the different forms of stretching. You might think that stretching only involves lengthening a particular muscle and holding that lengthened position for several seconds or more. While that is definitely one type of stretching, there are actually many other ways to stretch a muscle.
Stretching, sometimes referred to as flexibility or mobility training, is currently recognized as one of the most important ways to help prevent or even treat neuromuscular injuries. Indeed, people without adequate levels of flexibility and joint motion are at an increased risk for musculoskeletal injury or pain. Moreover, several studies have found an association between altered range of motion (ROM) and muscle tightness with an increased risk of injury in a variety of muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, low back, lower leg, and even groin muscles.
What is Flexibility and Why is it Important?
Flexibility is simply defined as the ability to move a particular joint through its complete ROM. The ROM of a joint is partly determined by the extensibility of the soft tissues (muscles and fascia) surrounding it. Optimal extensibility of a given muscle is very important in all planes of movement in order to allow for the freedom of movement to perform every activities safely and efficiently. For example, bending over to tie your shoes requires optimal extensibility of your hamstrings and low back, and reaching overhead to put dishes away in your cabinets requires optimal extensibility of your latissimus dorsi. For more information on joint mobility, please click here to read one of my earlier blog posts on this topic.
Poor flexibility can lead to altered movement patterns, muscle compensation, and poor posture. All muscles have a baseline resting length at which they function optimally in order to produce, maintain, and reduce force for human movement. If a muscle is too short because of reduced extensibility/excessive tightness, it might not be able to perform its normal function, causing other nearby "helper" muscles to pick up the slack. The issue is that these "helper" muscles have their own jobs to do AND they are not biologically designed to regularly perform the function of another muscle. Over time, this type of compensation can lead to discomfort, pain, or even injury. Flexibility training can help to:
Correct muscle imbalances
Increase joint ROM
Decrease excessive tension of muscles
Relieve joint stress
Maintain normal functional functional length of all muscles
Improve efficiency of communication between muscles and the nervous system (i.e. neuromuscular efficiency)
Improve overall functional movement in daily tasks
Different Types of Stretching
Seven stretching techniques will be discussed including self-myofascial release (SMR), static stretching, active stretching, dynamic stretching, PNF stretching, perpetual movement, and assisted stretching. Each type of stretch creates different effects on the neuromuscular system. These different stretching types can be used in combination to improve overall flexibility and mobility.
Self-myofascial release (SMR). SMR is stretching technique that uses a variety of rolling instruments (e.g. therapy balls, foam rollers, etc.) to exert effects on the neural and fascial systems in the body. For more detailed information about SMR, click here, and for more detailed information about fascia, click here. Basically, SMR can help correct existing muscle imbalances, reduce trigger points (i.e. knots within a muscle), and inhibit overactive muscles by using a roller instrument to exert pressure, or gentle force, to the muscle, fascia, and surrounding nerves. This increased pressure onto the soft tissue essentially helps to the nervous system to reduce its heightened activity in a tight, or tense, tissue. SMR can be done before and after exercise. SMR is also great to do before any of the other kinds of stretching, as breaking up fascial adhesions may improve the tissue's ability to lengthen through the stretching technique.
Static stretching (SS). SS is the process of stretching a muscle to the point of tension and then holding that stretched position for at least 30 seconds. SS is the traditional form of stretching that is most often thought of when someone says "stretching." This stretching technique is used to correct existing muscle imbalances and lengthen overactive (i.e. tight) muscles. It is typically used after exercise to lengthen muscles that were activated during the workout; however, it can be used before exercising as long as the person is stretching existing tight muscles in order to improve joint ROM. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that SS has been shown to decrease maximal strength and power for up to 10 minutes post-stretching, so SS is typically not recommended before high-intensity exercise or an athletic event. Rather, other types of stretching described below are typically better before engaging in a physical athletic activity.
Active stretching (AcS). AcS is a more dynamic version of SS, where a particular joint is dynamically moved into its ROM. AcS can increase the excitability of motorneurons, which are the cells in the nervous system that tell a muscle when, and how, to contract for movement. AcS is great to do before a sports event or high-intensity exercise. AcS are very similar to SS, except the difference is that AcS are held for 1-2 seconds, moving in/out of the stretch 5-10x (versus 1-2 sets of 30 sec in SS).
Dynamic stretching (DS). DS uses force production of a muscle and the body's momentum to take a joint through the full available ROM. These type of stretches actually look more like a body-weight workout than a traditional stretch. Examples of DS's include body-weight squats and lunges or medicine ball lifts/chops. Typically, 1-2 sets of 10-15 repetitions are performed for DS, doing anywhere from 3 - 10 exercises. DS is a great way to warm-up before an athletic event or high-intensity exercise, assuming the individual has appropriate core stability and balance capabilities.
PNF stretching (PNF). PNF is an acronym for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. PNF is a more advanced form of SS that involves both stretching and contracting the target muscle or muscle group. PNF is actually one of the most effective stretching techniques to improve flexibility and ROM. There are a few variations to PNF, but in general, PNF consists of lengthening a target muscle until the first point of tension, or resistance, and lingering in that space for about 10 seconds. Next, the target muscle is actually contracted, or engaged, for about 3 seconds. From here, the target muscle is relaxed, and the individual can move deeper into the stretch, holding this new ROM for 30 seconds.
Perpetual movement (PM). PM is a stretching technique that uses a consistent and ever-changing motion throughout the stretch. PM is like a wave in that a series of undulating movements occur during the stretch. In this type of stretching, the target muscle or muscle group is brought the first point of tension or resistance, and then continuous movement is added. This added movement could include simple back-and-forth movements of the target area, rotational movements to search for new muscle fibers, or additional movements of other body parts to alter the dynamic of the stretch. This technique is great for targeting different muscle fibers, or cells, at various angles or positions, which is great for enhancing neuromuscular efficiency and functional movement.
Assisted stretching (AS). AS requires a second person, typically a personal trainer, stretching/mobility coach, yoga teacher, or another allied health professional (e.g. massage therapist, physical therapist). AS typically occurs on a stretching table, but it can also occur on the ground or a chair. The goal in AS is to relax tension in the entire neuromuscular system to improve whole-body mobility. AS can include any of the stretching techniques described above, with the only difference being that a second person is helping to lengthen the tissues.
Thank you so much for reading this post! Please know that the field of stretching and mobility is vast and complex. The information presented here is merely a brief overview of the common types of stretching, and this post in no way encompasses all the information out there about stretching.
There are several different forms of stretching. Truly, the best flexibility program will likely incorporate multiple forms of stretching to meet the unique needs of your body on a given day. I would definitely recommend seeking the guidance of a stretching/mobility coach, personal trainer, experienced yoga teacher, or SMR coach to determine what types of stretching would be best for each of your muscles. These type of coaches/trainers have specialized training to determine what muscles are likely overactive (and too tight) and what muscles are underactive (and too loose). This information is used to create a personalized stretching plan unique for YOUR body. Also, keep in mind that you can always use props to make certain stretches more gentle or accessible for your body, such as blankets, yoga blocks or bolsters, stability balls, or even furniture (such as a chair or the wall).
One of the most important things to remember when doing any kind of stretching is to keep breathing. Do not hold your breath. Rather, continue to breathe full, complete, deep breaths in and out of your nose. Holding the breath only causes more tension to be created in the neuromuscular system. Another important consideration for stretching is that it should not be painful. Sensation is okay and likely, especially if the muscle being stretched is very tight or loaded with trigger points. Make sure to listen to your body and ease off or avoid any stretching that causes pain, discomfort, or just feels inauthentic to you.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of human movement, anatomy and physiology, and yoga. If you have questions about stretching for your body, please follow up with your physician, physical therapist, personal trainer, or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga and/or personal training sessions with me, Jackie, email me at email@example.com for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my monthly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT, NASM-CPT, NASM-CES, NASM-CNC, NASM-SFC
Cibulka, M.T. et al. (1998). Unilateral hip rotation range of motion asymmetry in patients with sacroiliac joint regional pain. Spine. 23(9): 1009 - 1015.
Clark, M.A. et al. (2018). NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. 6th Edition. Jones & Bartlett Learning. Burlington, MA.
Guroian, L. et al. (2008). The effects of active isolated stretching on flexibility and function in older adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 40(5): S373.
Hanaten, W.P. et al. (2000). Effectiveness of a home program of ischemic pressure followed by sustained stretch for treatment of myofascial trigger points. Physical Therapy. 80: 997 - 1003.
Maffey, L. & Emery, C. (2007). What are the risk factors for groin strain injury in sport? A systematic review of the literature. Sports Medicine. 37(10): 881 - 894.
Witvrouw, E. et al. (2001). Intrinsic risk factors for the development of patellar tendinitis in an athletic population. A two-year prospective study. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 29(2): 190 - 195.
Witvrouw, E. et al. (2003). Muscle flexibility as a risk factor for developing muscle injuries in male professional soccer players. A prospective study. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 31(1): 41 - 46.