Stretching after a workout increases your blood flow and circulation, sending more oxygen to your brain and muscles and helping reduce muscle soreness and pain, which is why this activity is often a part of post-workout cool downs.
But as you might already now, certain types of stretches can also boost the quality of your pre-workout warm up by helping loosen up tight muscles and widen their range of motion, efficiently preparing the body for the hard work that follows.
There are many ways to incorporate stretches into your program, and most of them are guaranteed to prove as beneficial for your performance, but if you carefully paired your type of workout with the most adequate type of stretches, the gains can be truly immense.
Static & Dynamic stretches
Static and dynamic stretches are by far the two most popular types of stretching, and we’re pretty sure that you’ve already experienced their benefits.
Static stretching is executed by stretching your muscles while the body is at rest. It involves gradually elongating the targeted muscles as much as possible and then holding the final position for about 30 seconds. They can be active, meaning that added force is applied by the individual for greater intensity and passive, where the additional force comes from an external force such as a piece of gym equipment or an exercise partner.
A good example is bending over and touching your toes. Static stretches work best when they’re performed after a workout, when the muscles are adequately loose. The time a stretch is held is determined by the age and pre-existing injuries of the individual, but a good general rule of thumb is holding it as long as you can tolerate the discomfort.
Research has shown that when performed after a training session, static stretching has the ability to improve flexibility and joint range of motion, as well as relaxing the muscles, and it’s also useful tool for alleviating muscle soreness. It’s also the safest way to stretch for the biggest part of the population.
On the other hand, dynamic stretches make use of the momentum of controlled, deliberate movement of the extremities until they reach the farthest range of motion possible. In other words, the stretch is performed by moving through a challenging but comfortable range of motion for 10-12 reps.
They can be best described as slower, modified versions of the exercises that you’re about to perform, and their role is to warm up the muscles, stimulate better blood flow and most importantly, improving the range of motion around your joints, which is a key contributor to reducing the risk of joint injury.
Studies have shown that athletes who perform dynamic stretches as a crucial part of their warm-up routine have increase muscle performance and improved endurance, thanks to the improved functional range of motion and mobility.
Needless to say, dynamic stretches can also be performed in an active or passive way, depending on whether the force applied comes from an internal or external source.
In the past, we were told that static stretching is the proper way to warm up the muscles before a grueling gym sessions, but recent research has shown that while static stretching may loosen up the muscles in a beneficial way, it actually has no relevance to what you’re about to perform and doesn’t translate well into functional flexibility, and can even increase the risk of injury instead of reduce it.
That’s why most exercise experts agree that static stretching programs are best suited after a physical activity.
However, there is more to stretching than these two common variations, and understanding the various types of stretches better will give you the opportunity to increase the functionality of your movements and speed up the repair and recovery process. Here are a few other ways to stretch your muscles before, during and after a workout for optimal gains:
#1. Active isolated stretching (AIS)
The AIS method provides dynamic, facilitated stretching of major muscle groups by muscle lengthening and fascial release. This stretching program was developed by the Kinesiotherapist Aaron Mattes over 30 years ago, and it’s based on four principles:
- isolating the muscles to be stretched
- repeating the stretch 10 times
- holding each stretch for two seconds
- exhale on the stretch, inhale on the release.
The purpose of this stretching technique is to optimize the circulation of blood, oxygen and vital nutrients to the muscles being stretched, thereby promoting maximum flexibility and faster recovery.
#2. Isometric stretching
Isometric stretching emphasizes isometric contractions which occur when tension is created within the muscle group without affecting its length and it’s one of the most effective methods for improving static passive flexibility.
However, isometric stretching demands a spotter because of the way your body works: as one area of it is stretched, the muscles will be trying to resist the stretch by going to the opposite direction.
So, for example, if you can get someone to hold your extended leg up as high as possible while you’re naturally pushing downwards to resist the stretch, you’ll get much better results than by stretching the leg up by yourself.
If you’re looking to increase the range of motion of your joints and strengthen your ligaments and tendons (especially in stretched positions), add isometric stretching to your routine. If you can’t find a spotter, a chair or a wall can act as good sources of resistance.
#3. Ballistic stretching
Ballistic stretching uses the momentum of a limb in an attempt to force it beyond its regular range of motion, making it bounce to a stretched pose.
More specifically, ballistic stretching involves bouncing into a stretched position when the muscle is not yet prepared or relaxed enough to enter that range. That means it doesn’t allow your muscles to adjust to the stretched position, causing them to tighten up by activating the stretch reflex repeatedly.
And since ballistic stretches require extra force, they extend the muscles through a larger range of movement, allowing them to stretch more than they normally would.
But even though this form of stretching is very popular among athletes since it helps them increase their range of motion, but it can be potentially dangerous if done by the average gym-goer without appropriate supervision.
#4. Myofascial release
Myofascial release is a safe and highly effective technique that involves applying gentle pressure into the fascia, a system of connective tissues that unites different areas of the body and their underlying muscles.
It works by allowing the fascia to elongate with the help of gentle pressure and it’s used to eliminate pain, restore motion and provide relief to the tension in the fascia, usually by the use of a foam roller.
Besides being a helpful stretching technique for a number of conditions and injuries that include a loss of flexibility or function in the back, shoulder and hip area, myofascial release can also help athletes improve their performance by reducing muscle tightness and releasing muscular shortness during the warm-up portion of the routine.
#5. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
PNF tightly combines isometric and static stretching to create a more advanced form of flexibility training that involves both the stretching and contraction of the targeted muscle.
The goal of PNF stretching is to improve flexibility and boost motor performance while minimizing the risk of athletic injury. While it was originally created as a form of rehabilitation, it’s been also widely used for improving muscular strength and mobility of specific muscle groups in terms of athletic training.
To perform PNF stretching, you need to passively stretch the given muscle, then contract it in an isometric way against the resistance in the stretched position. The last step is to passively stretch the same muscle through the increased range of motion that was gained from the stretch. The end result is a greatly increased range of motion.
However, PNF stretches can put added stress on the target muscle group, which increases the risk of soft tissue injury. Therefore, it’s important to warm up properly prior to stretching so that the body is well prepared for more intense activity.
As you can see, the goals of all stretching variations is to improve one’s flexibility, range of motion and muscle performance. These techniques are fairly simple and take little time to perform, but using them wisely and during appropriate segments of the routine can help you achieve better results and accelerate the recovery process by providing your muscles and joints with more strength and flexibility.