When in Doubt, Stretch It Out! pt 3: The Derived Forms of Stretching
The Different Types of Stretching: Part 2
Welcome back to our third week of blog posts on stretching, flexibility, and the many forms and benefits of each. For the last post in this series, I’ll be focusing on the methods of stretching that are combinations or variations of the 3 main forms of stretching discussed in Part 2 of this series. If you’d like to review some of the many benefits of stretching, head back to Part 1! Let’s dive right into the more complex forms of stretching.
The Derived Forms of Stretching
A form of dynamic stretching in which you bounce or pulse harshly, trying to stretch further with each repetition. This is a much more forceful and explosive action than the dynamic stretching discussed last week. Generally this form of stretching is considered dangerous and is not recommended, although some studies suggest that when performed correctly by highly trained individuals this can be an effective way to increase flexibility. But for the vast majority of us, this type of stretching should be avoided. An example of this could be to prop your leg up in front of you on a wall, and then repeatedly try to forcefully push your torso closer to the leg in order to feel a stretch in your hamstring. Once again, this is just for illustrative purposes, please do not attempt the above example as you could tear your hamstring away from the pelvic bone it connects to! Pros: In those highly trained to do these stretches, may increase flexibility safely Cons: Very easy to overstretch here, causing sprains, strains, tears, and permanent connective tissue damage.
Assisted Passive Stretching
A form of passive stretching in which the force is applied by an outside person or prop while you remain totally relaxed. Technically this is a form of passive stretching, but some people like to differentiate between the two, as there are slightly different benefits and contraindications of each. An example of this is to lie down on the floor or a massage table and have someone else bring your leg up towards your head. Pros: When your body is fully relaxed, it is much easier to take your muscles through their full range of motion. All the benefits of passive stretching also apply. Cons: All the cons of passives stretching apply. Also, when you are not in control of the stretch, there is the chance that an improperly trained practitioner could stretch your muscles too far and cause injury.
A combination of active and passive stretching that involves resisting a force that does not move during a stretch (Isometric muscle contraction = when the muscle does not move the external force because that force is stronger than the muscular effort). This force could be from yourself, another person, or a prop such as the wall. An example of self isometric stretching would be to lie on your back and pull your bent leg into your chest with your arms while you try to straighten it back down to the ground with your hamstring muscle. An example of partner assisted isometric stretching would be to lie down and have someone bring your leg up towards your head, and then you engage your hamstring try to bring it back down while they resist you. An example of prop assisted isometric stretching would be to bring your straight leg onto a bar or table, and then use your hamstring to try to push the prop down into the floor. Isometric stretching is done in 3 parts:
A simple passive stretch of the target muscle
15 seconds of resistance (the isometric stretch)
20 seconds of rest in the initial passive stretch
Pros: More effective than either active or passive stretching alone. This is one of the fastest ways to increase passive static flexibility since you are lengthening a muscle whose fibers are contracted. This means that the muscle fibers become accustomed to this lengthening and can lengthen further once relaxed. Cons: If you push too hard or begin too abruptly, you could risk damaging soft tissue in your joints or pulling a muscle. People with hypermobile joints or young people with still-developing muscles are at an even greater risk for this.
Related to isometric stretching, this form of stretching involves a partner and uses an isometric stretch along with a mix of active and passive stretches to greatly increase both active and passive static flexibility. There are several types, but we will discuss the two most common (and safest) forms of PNF stretching.
Hold-Relax: Basically an isometric stretch, except that during the last passive stretch, the partner takes the muscle to its new end range through the increased range of motion created by the stretch.
Hold-Relax-Contract: Follows the first two steps of an isometric stretch; the final stretch is not passive, but active. That is, the opposing muscles to the ones being stretched (think agonist-antagonist pairs, see last week’s post for more on this) contract, holding the stretched muscle through its new range of motion while building the opposing muscle’s strength.
Pros: All the benefits of isometric stretching apply here, and are made even more effective because of added final stretch, which either dramatically improves passive flexibility (hold-relax) or active flexibility (hold-relax-contract). Increases flexibility more quickly than other methods. Cons: All the risks associated with isometric stretching apply here as well. Having a partner taking your muscles through the final passive stretch can increase the risk of muscle strains or tears because of the risk of stretching too far. The hold-relax-contract method eliminates that problem, although the final stretch may not go as far through your range of motion.
Active Isolated Stretching
A mix of dynamic stretching principles combined with a sort of mini-isometric stretch. This type of stretch is generally performed on yourself. It a 2 second active stretch followed by a moment of relaxation in which you move partway out of the stretch, repeated several times with the goal of stretching a little further each time. An example of this would be to start in a low lunge, contract your front leg glute and hamstring for two seconds to deepen the lunge, then shift your hips back out of the lunge slightly, before shifting forward again and repeating the sequence 5-10 more times. You will gradually find yourself moving deeper into the lunge with each repetition. Pros: Improves both active and static flexibility, and to a degree dynamic flexibility as well. This is one of the fastest methods to improve flexibility that you can practice without assistance. Since this is done in two second increments, it doesn’t give your body time to fight the stretch (caused by what is called the stretch reflex), so it is quite safe when done properly. Cons: Since the stretch reflex doesn’t have time to come into play, if you move too quickly, too far, or with too many repetitions, you could end up with muscle strains or even tiny tears. If your body is not aligned properly while you move, your joints may become uncomfortable over the course of many repetitions.
The last form of stretching we will discuss is a bit different from the rest. This technique specifically targets the fascia, or the covering that wraps around the muscles and around groups of muscles, acting like a sort of connective tissue and communicating directly with the brain. (There is so much information on fascia that it could be the subject of its own blog post or twenty). It usually involves a foam roller, spiky myofascial roller, or other prop. The most basic form of myofascial release involves rolling a part of the body that feels tight or “sticky” back and forth across the foam roller, applying as much pressure as you can comfortably handle. A spiky roller may be rolled back and forth across specific muscle groups; this is most easily done by a partner. A more advanced technique is done in stillness using a yoga block or other object, but this is best done under a competent teacher so I will not give examples here. Pros: Loosens the fascia specifically, which gives the muscles more room to stretch, and also to grow. When done properly, helps release mental (and sometimes emotional) stress. Helps reduce soreness post-workout. Cons: Very easy to overdo, leading to soreness of the fascia itself. Can be uncomfortable (particularly those techniques which do not involve movement). Does not directly affect the length of the muscle fibers as much as other forms of stretching. If done before a workout, can lead to a less productive workout and increase the risk of injury since the muscles have more “wiggle room” inside the fascia.
So Which Form of Stretching is Best?
Well, the short answer is, it depends on your intended goal, and when you stretch in relation to other exercise you may be doing.
To warm up before exercise: Dynamic stretching gradually warms you up through your full range of motion. It helps you move better and farther during your workout, increasing the effectiveness of your exercises. Do not do: Any exercise involving passive stretching, or myofascial release, as it will loosen (and weaken) your muscles for the ensuing exercise. [NOTE: Curiosity got the better of me and I tested this theory by passively stretching my biceps, triceps, and shoulders before a boxing class. It was the hardest boxing class I’ve ever taken! My arms were dying halfway through, and I couldn’t move as quickly as normal]
To cool down after a workout: This is where passive stretching (assisted or not) and myofascial release are at their most effective. They will help your muscles return to their normal length after contracting during exercise, effectively reducing soreness and recovery time post-workout. Do not do: Dynamic or active stretching (or stretching methods that combine the two) as they will not be as effective here, since your muscles may already be fatigued. You’ll be more prone to injury if you use fatigued muscles to hold stretches.
As a stand-alone multitasker: Here is where active stretching is at its most effective, as it stretches and strengthens at the same time. Any stretching technique that uses active stretching or movement is also effective here. Isometric stretching, PNF stretching, and Active Isolated Stretching are all extremely effective for fast gains in flexibility, as well as some underlying muscle strength.