By Ryan Unverzagt
I want to focus this month on the most neglected aspect of typical fitness programs. I’m talking about flexibility. This should be at the top of everyone’s fitness wish list because having good flexibility means experiencing less injury and improving activities of daily living. There are four types of flexibility training which include static, ballistic, dynamic, and PNF stretching techniques (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation). I will discuss these methods, benefits, drawbacks, and give examples of each so that you can determine which one is best for you.
Static stretching is the most common type of flexibility training. This involves slowly moving a muscle toward the end of its range of motion (ROM) without bouncing (or screaming for some of us!) to avoid that stretch reflex I wrote about in my plyometrics article. If you move too fast, the stretch reflex will make the muscle contract while you’re trying to lengthen it, leading to a possible tear. A static stretch should be held for 30 seconds to the point of minor discomfort. Research has shown that holding stretches longer than 30 seconds does not provide any extra improvement.
The benefit of static stretching is that it’s the safest form with a very low risk of injury especially if performed after a workout when the muscles’ temperature is higher. Another benefit is that this type of stretching will decrease any soreness associated with unaccustomed exercise. A possible drawback of static stretching is it can decrease athletic performance. Researchers have found that it can negatively affect running, throwing, and jumping if done before the activity.
Ballistic stretching is done by rapidly moving your muscles toward the end of its ROM and bouncing to achieve greater flexibility. You might have done this in gym class at one time or another. This used to be a popular stretching method. Although ballistic stretching does work, it is no longer recommended for increasing flexibility due to its high risk of injury to joints, muscles, and tendons.
Dynamic stretching is a technique that is more commonly used during an athletes’ warm-up routine before a workout or competition. The walking lunge is an example of a dynamic stretch in which you would take an exaggerated step forward, lowering your body by bending the knee, keeping an upright position, and pushing the hips forward. Dynamic stretching is similar to ballistic stretching without bouncing toward the end ROM. The object is to mimic the activities in which you are about to participate, such as the golf swing. You want to start out swinging in a moderate ROM, then progress to full ROM. The potential downside to this type of stretching is that it requires balance, some skill, and coordination. Unlike static stretching, dynamic stretching is found to improve sports performance.
PNF stretching is the fourth way to improve flexibility. This method generally utilizes a partner in order to provide the most effective stretch. PNF takes advantage of the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) located within a muscle’s tendon that signals the muscle to relax when tension is built. This relaxation is achieved when your partner holds a static stretch of mild tension for 10 seconds, then you provide an isometric muscle contraction in the opposite direction for about 6 seconds, then relax to have your partner carefully bring you to a full ROM stretch for 30 seconds. The isometric contraction will stimulate the GTO and allow your muscle to relax for an even further stretch. There are a few potential drawbacks to PNF stretching. The first one is that you need a partner that knows what he or she is doing (such as a Personal Trainer or Physical Therapist). If your partner lacks experience, there is a good chance that they can over-stretch and tear your muscle. PNF techniques also take a considerable amount of time to complete and might result in some muscle soreness. However, PNF stretching is one the most effective ways to improve your flexibility.
All the stretching methods mentioned in this article are effective, but I would advise against the ballistic technique because you have little control of the stretch while bouncing. I recommend static stretching because it is the safest and easiest to perform. If you are looking to improve performance, then dynamic and PNF stretching is the way to go. With this in mind, I hope that you consider adding a flexibility component to your fitness plan.