Stretching is one of the most important things we can do to improve flexibility and help to prevent injuries during sports and recreation.
Stretching is equally as important with those who are more sedentary. Especially if you have a job that requires you to sit at a desk or at a computer station all day.
The questions people often ask me is “when is the best time to stretch?” or “what kind of stretching should I be doing?”
The answer to these questions are based on what the goal of the stretch and the activity that stretching is involved in. However, before we get into that, let’s go over the types of stretching that you can do.
Static stretching, also known as passive stretching, is the type of stretching that most people are familiar with. It involves using an external force to elongate or stretch out a muscle. You usually generate force through your own body weight or by pulling with your arms. People will often use the wall or a strap to gain leverage for stretching as well.
A good example is traditional hamstring stretching where you keep one leg straight and try to bend to reach your toes. Holds for static stretches are usually 10-60 seconds, but most research show the best effects take place with longer holds of 30-60 seconds. Repeating stretches 3-5 times at any given time will help with flexibility.
Active stretching is a more dynamic form of stretching that uses contraction of a muscle that is opposite to the muscle that is being targeting for stretch. Going back to the example of the hamstring, you would actively contract the quadriceps muscle to target and stretch the hamstring. For example, standing and kicking your leg straight out in front of you would actively stretch the hamstrings in the leg that is moving.
The idea behind active stretching is that when the quad (agonist muscle) is active, it’s opposite muscle (antagonist), the hamstring relaxes and stretching can occur. Active stretching is also the primary type of stretching used in most yoga poses. This is why yoga is such a good exercise to improve flexibility and decrease pain.
Which Type of Stretching is Best?
The answer to this question depends on the goal of the activity. For example, someone going for a run will have a different goal than someone who has been sitting all day and feels “stiff”.
There has been a lot of research on stretching done with different results, however, it has been shown that active stretching is a better option than passive stretching prior to activity and sport. Active stretching tends to be more functional and allows for dynamic movement that doesn’t necessarily challenge the limits of a muscles flexibility, but will allow for the stretching and warm-up that is required for activity. In fact, static stretching has been shown to decrease the strength of muscles when performed before the activity! Deficits of strength and power could reach as high as 30% after static stretching. A decrease in strength and power will make you more susceptible to a sports related muscle strain or overuse injury.
Recommendation for Active Stretching
The recommendation is that active stretching mimic the activity that you are participating in. For example, soccer players should perform leg swings forward and backward as if they are kicking the air. This will warm up the muscles properly for the activity and minimize the chance of injury. Active stretches are more dynamic and do not have long holds like a static stretch. When considering how long to do an active stretch, it is recommended to do 30-50 repetitions or 1-2 minutes. A proper warm-up for pre-activity should be around 5-10 minutes for the average person.
Should You Avoid Static Stretching?
This is not to say that static stretching is necessarily bad. There are many benefits to static stretching including improving flexibility, reducing stress and helping to reduce stiffness after activity. Statically stretching “cold” muscles in not usually recommended for the same reasons mentioned above. It can cause mild muscle damage and may lead to injury by creating weakness.
However, doing stretches after activity is recommended. Follow-up your long run or resistance training with 5-10 minutes of stretching. Be sure to target the whole body, especially the muscles that have been doing the most work during the activity.
Static stretching is also great for those who are working in a sedentary job at a desk all day. Sitting for hours at a time (which I don’t recommend to anyone ever) can lead to stiffness in muscles of the back, neck and shoulders due to poor posture and prolonged inactivity. Taking breaks every 30 minutes to perform light stretches will significantly decrease pain related to stress and poor posture. As a result, you will feel more energized and productive while you are working.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both active and static stretching, however, it seems that active stretching is a better option for improving function and mobility for a specific activity. Static stretching has the advantage of being easy to do and can be helpful in improving flexibility as well.
1. Avoid static stretching before exercise and activity. Passively stretching cold muscles can do more harm than good. Active stretching based on the activity is the better option.
2. Use active stretching as a warm-up before playing sports, running and recreation to avoid injury and muscle strain.
3. Use static stretching at the end of workout to alleviate muscle stiffness of already warm muscles
4. Static stretching is a good way to take breaks during the work day if you have a sedentary desk job.
5. Always consult with your physical therapist if you have questions about what stretches and exercise are right for you.