Stretching is one of the most common and practical forms of self-care. It only requires your body and can be done anywhere. Stretching is the act of elongating the tissue on multiple levels, including: fascia, muscles, and more. Some are meant to excite the muscles and prepare them for activity and others are meant to relax the tissue and body. Knowing when to use different types of stretches is important in order to avoid injury and maximize performance.
When stretching, it is important to warm the muscles up to avoid injury. Warming up the tissue makes it more elastic and reduces the risk of creating a strain. A good example of this is Play Dough: if you start playing with it while it is cold, it will tear apart without stretching. However, playing with it using your hands transfer energy, allowing the Play Dough to take a variety of shapes more easily. When dealing with the body, this can be accomplished through the use of heat, activation of the muscles, compression, and other massage techniques.
Static stretching is one of the most well known styles of stretching. It relaxes and lengthens the muscles and connective tissue. The stretch positions are held for 30 to 60 seconds. This allows the parasympathetic system to activate, which allows the body to relax.
Regarding physical activities, it is important to know which type of stretching to use around the performance period. Static stretching used to be the go-to choice before performance based activities, but we now know that this can inhibit and relax the muscles. Static stretching is meant to be used after events, when the athletes have cooled down. If a stretch is held for long periods of time before physical activities, it will reduce the excitability of the muscle, therefore reducing its ability to engage properly. If the muscle tissue is put under a lot of stress or tension and it's not prepared to engage properly, it can lead to injuries.
One great form of static stretching is yoga. A style like Yin Yoga involves holding each pose/position for 2-5 minutes. The poses are held in a gentle and supported stretch, usually utilizing blocks, mats, and blankets. This allows the tissue to let go over a longer period of time, and is easier on the body.
Dynamic stretching is an active form of stretching wherein each stretch is typically held for 2-3 seconds. This is done by activating the muscle’s antagonist, which does the opposite action. Holding the stretch for 2-3 seconds allows the muscles to lengthen without relaxing, maintaining the excitability of the tissue. Stretches lasting longer than 3 seconds start to relax the muscle tissue.
This style of stretching is used between physical activities or for athletic warm-ups. By doing this, the maximum range of motion is maintained without a loss in the force the muscle can generate.
Ballistic stretching uses quick and jerky movements to inhibit the body’s stretch reflex and increase range of motion through force created by bouncing. Muscles have sensors that tell them how far they are being stretched. If these sensors feel too much tension, they will pull the muscle back. This is called the Gogli tendon reflex. The force of the movement overrides the Gogli tendon organ sensors and allows the muscles to stretch more than they normally would. This is a riskier form of stretching as you have the potential to overload the muscle, therefore increasing the potential for injuries. Due to the higher risk, dynamic stretching is preferred.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching is a way to lengthen the tissue using neuromuscular techniques. It is usually referred to as “Contract Relax” in massage therapy, and is done by stretching and then contracting targeted muscles in order to improve flexibility and increase range of motion.
This neuromuscular technique works because when you activate a muscle, the antagonist muscle automatically turns off. For example, when you activate the biceps, the triceps turn off. When a protagonist, or targeted, muscle is taken into a stretch and an antagonist muscle is activated, it allows the stretched muscle to relax and be lengthened further.
How to Perform PNF Stretching:
Guide the muscles to a stretched position.
Contracts the muscle group for 5 to 6 seconds while a partner or immovable object applies a resistant force. This is considered an isometric contraction.
The contracted muscle is relaxed and then stretched further and held for 30 seconds
Repeat 2-4 times
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation stretching can put added stress on the targeted muscle groups. Be sure to not over stretch your body. If you are a therapist or trainer, effectively communicate with the client.
During the stretching and contraction phases, it’s unnecessary to apply maximum force and intensity. Gentle stretches and contractions are best, and the intensity should not be greater than 5 or 6 out of 10. The smaller the muscle group, the less force that is needed. For instance, when working on the neck or shoulder you may use a 3 or 4 out of 10.
Stretching is an easy and practical way to lengthen muscle fibers. Dynamic and ballistic stretching can be used to prepare the muscles for athletic performances. Static and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching are used to relax the muscles and body. Knowing when to use different styles of stretching is crucial for maximizing benefits and avoiding injuries.