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When in Doubt, Stretch It Out! pt2: The Main Types of Stretching

The Different Types of Stretching: Part 1

Last week, we talked about some of the many benefits of stretching, and why it is an important part of a well-rounded fitness routine. But what is the best way to stretch? There are many different methods of stretching out there. And to further complicate things, some methods of stretching have confusing names (what in the world is PNF stretching? why does active stretching not involve movement?). Every method of stretching has its own set of benefits and contraindications (the people or situations for which it is not beneficial). Some methods may be more effective for some people than others. Some types of stretching are the most effective at a certain point in your workout routine, and offer little value at any other point. But before we can get into the different types of stretching, it is important to understand that there are different types of flexibility.

The Different Types of Flexibility

If you thought that flexibility just meant how far you could get into the splits or touch your toes, you are not alone. But flexibility can be dynamic (in motion) or static (still).

Dynamic Flexibility

The range of motion you can move a part of your body through. This type of flexibility affects the degree to which you can move during exercise and in everyday life. An example of dynamic flexibility would be how high you are able to kick your leg out in front of you.

Passive Flexibility

The amount of static stretch a relaxed part of your body can achieve with the help of another part of your body, another person, or a still object you use as a prop. This is what most people envision when they think about flexibility. An example of passive flexibility would how high you can lift your leg up in front of you by pulling it up with your hand.

Active Flexibility

A static form of stretching in which the only muscles used to hold the stretch are those that perform the opposite movement to the muscle being stretched. This type of stretching involves both strength in the muscles used to hold the stretch (called the agonists), as well as flexibility in the muscles being stretched (the antagonists). An example of active flexibility would be how high you can hold your leg out in front of you without holding the foot or propping yourself against anything. In this case, the quads are the agonists, or the muscles used to keep the leg up; and the hamstrings are the antagonists, or the muscles being stretched.

Each of these three forms of flexibility has its own benefits. Together, they give you an increased range of motion that is supported by your muscles and safe for your joints. Now that we understand the different ways in which we can be flexible, we can begin to look at the different types of stretching. We’ll cover the 3 broadest categories of stretching this week, and then look at the rest (many of which are variations or combinations of aspects of these 3 main types) next week.

The 3 Main Types of Stretching

Dynamic Stretching

This form of stretching involves movement, and as its name suggests, improves your dynamic flexibility. It is best done as a warm up, gently easing your muscles into operating within their full range of motion, and encouraging them to increase that range of motion with repetition of specific movements. An example of this is to kick your leg out in front of you as high as you can and repeat the motion several times, seeing if you can kick a little bit higher with each repetition. Pros: Warms up the muscles, improves dynamic flexibility. The repetition improves muscle memory and can help increase functional range of motion (the range of motion in which you can perform actions). Since you are in motion, the muscles being stretched never have time to “fight” the stretch, which can help prevent them from pulling at the connective tissue attaching them to the bones. Cons: When done incorrectly or without control, motion during stretching can twist, pull, or put too much pressure on joints. Without proper stability of the parts of the body not in motion, the stretch may not reach the targeted muscles effectively. Moving too quickly can injure the muscles being stretched.

Passive Stretching

Also known as Static Passive Stretching, this form of stretching uses outside help, from either yourself, another person, or a prop, to bring the relaxed muscle through its full range of motion and to hold it at the end range, increasing its length and passive flexibility. Splits, having someone else bring your leg towards your head while you lie on your back, or reaching for your toes with your leg propped on a bar are all examples of static passive stretching. Continuing the earlier example with pulling the leg towards the ceiling, an example of this form of stretching is to hold onto your foot as you use your arm to pull your leg towards the ceiling in front of you. Pros: The simplest form of stretching, takes your muscles to the end range of the stretch, can be held relatively easily regardless of your general strength. Leads to relaxation, as it requires the least amount of effort of all the stretching methods. This form of stretching is particularly effective after exercise, as it returns your muscles to their lengthened state and decreases muscle soreness. Cons: When held for too long or pushed too far, this can easily lead to overstretching, which greatly increases the risk of sprains, strains, and even tears. Research also suggests that passive stretching before a workout can actually lead to reduced strength and speed during that workout, since the muscles are lengthened and relaxed.

Active Stretching

Also know as Static Active Stretching (since you are not moving but muscles are active), this form of stretching increase your active flexibility. It improves both the flexibility of the muscles being stretched (the antagonists), as well as the strength of the agonists that are working to hold the stretch. Many yoga poses are examples of active stretching, such as in Warrior 2 when the arms are lengthening away from each other. An example of this is to hold your leg out as high as you can in front of you, using just your quads and other muscles in the front of your thigh, as the hamstring is stretched. Pros: Increases both strength and flexibility. Can improve dynamic flexibility as well as static flexibility due to the inherent muscle activity. Since no outside forces are being used, it is much harder to accidentally overstretch. Combines some of the best parts of both dynamic stretching and passive stretching. Cons: Depending on the strength of the agonist being used, the targeted muscle may not be stretched as far through its range of motion as it could be using other methods. These stretches cannot usually be held long due to the muscular action required, which leads to agonist fatigue fairly quickly. Generally not as relaxing as other stretching methods.

Almost all other types of stretching branch from these 3 main types, which correlate to the 3 main types of flexibility. Next week, we’ll continue our discussion of the different types of stretching, and then bring it all together with recommendations for which types of stretching to place at different points in your workout routine, and which should be avoided under certain circumstances.

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