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  • Brian Pendergast

Stretching: An Essential Aspect of Athletic Training- Part II

In Part I of this series, we discussed the physical and mental benefits of stretching as it relates to your athletic development. In this next part, we will take a look at what the seven types of stretching are, how they work, and in which situation they are best used.

Passive Stretching

Passive stretching is probably the type of stretching with which you are most familiar. Also referred to as relaxed stretching, this type of stretch requires you to get to a position and hold it with the assistance of another force, such as another body part, a partner, or other apparatus (i.e. a wall or floor). Passive stretching works by teaching the proprioceptors (the nerve endings that relay all information from the musculoskeletal system to the central nervous system) to become accustomed to a certain range of motion. Passive stretching is best used after your work-outs and athletic performances as a cool-down to begin the recovery process.

Static Stretching

Static stretching is very similar to passive stretching in that it involves getting to and holding a position at its furthest point. However, static stretching does not include holding that position with another force. A simple example of a static stretch is bending over and reaching for your toes while your arms dangle. Much like passive stretching, static stretching also teaches the proprioceptors to become accustomed to ranges of motions that require the muscle fibers to extend and stretch. Static stretching is also another good way to stretch after your work-outs or athletic performances.

Active Stretching

Active stretching involves getting into a static position and holding it using no other force besides the agonist muscles (the muscles required to maintain the position). An example of active stretching is while in a standing position, one leg is lifted up as high as possible and held in the extended position. The contraction and therefore tension of the agonist muscles help the muscles being stretched (antagonists) relax through reciprocal inhibition. Active stretching combines strengthening and flexibility as the agonist muscles are strengthened and the antagonists are loosened. Many poses in yoga represent excellent examples of active stretching. Active stretching is great to do on off-days when you are looking to increase your overall range of motion and flexibility.

Ballistic Stretching

Ballistic stretching uses momentum to push a stretch past its normal range of motion. It is important to note, that while performing a ballistic stretch, you are only moving beyond your range of motion for an instant before returning to a more relaxed position. Unlike common misperception, ballistic stretching does not involve a wild or jerky motion, but rather a controlled movement that allows you to eek out further ranges of motion in a gradual manner. An example of a ballistic stretch is creating a slight bounce while reaching down towards your toes. This manner of stretching, much like passive and static stretching, simply trains the nervous system to become accustomed to extended ranges of motion. Please be aware, that while stretching, regardless of the type, if you feel your muscles are starting to tighten up, it is a good time to cease stretching that muscle as the myotatic reflex (an instinctive reflex sent by your nervous system to contract your muscles to protect them) is engaging as the muscle fiber is getting fatigued or pushed too far. Ballistic stretching is another good way to work on increasing range of motion on off-days and it can also be used to help mobilize during your work-outs and athletic performances.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching consists of active movements that allow the muscles to elongate and warm-up in a gentle manner by gradually increasing range of motion. The ranges of motions that you bring your muscles to are not held. Once you get your muscles to an optimal range of motion, you move on to the next stretch. By performing dynamic stretches, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) becomes engaged. An activation or awakening of muscle and muscle fibers along with an in increase of blood flow and an actual warming up of body temperature is experienced. The entire neuromuscular system becomes primed and ready to go. Examples of dynamic stretches are leg swings and arm swings. Dynamic stretching is used as a warm-up to get ready for your work-outs and athletic performances, including days in which you are solely looking to improve your flexibility.

Isometric Stretching

Isometric stretching is similar to passive stretching but with applied resistance from the muscles being stretched. Resistance can come from yourself, a partner, or an external force. Isometric stretching is a very fast and effective way in increasing both passive and static flexibility. An example of an isometric stretch is a lying partner hamstring stretch in which you are pushing against the partner who is holding your leg into the stretch. To perform correctly, you want to assume a passive stretch, then contract the muscles being stretched for 7-15 seconds, then relax the muscles for 20 seconds before repeating. Isometric stretching works by creating more muscle fibers to stretch simultaneously. This gets a little more in-depth than what we have been covering above. When performing a passive stretch, like a quad stretch, some of the muscle fibers in the quad are stretching while others are relaxing. When we provide a contraction of the muscle that is being stretched (i.e. the quad), it forces many of the fibers that are relaxing to get pulled from both sides, thus stretching them. The effectiveness of isometric stretching comes from the ability to make a majority of the muscle stretch. As mentioned previously, the proprioceptors and nervous system become used to extended ranges of motion after a period of time, thus not causing a myotatic reflex upon the repetition of continued stretching. Isometric stretching is useful for post work-outs and athletic performances, as well as on days-off when you are looking to increase range of motion and flexibility.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching combines passive and isometric stretching. It is regarded as the fastest and most effective way in increasing both passive and static stretching. PNF stretching can be done without a partner, however, having a partner certainly helps in its effectiveness. PNF stretching involves an isometric stretch followed by a passive stretch. We will use the same lying partner hamstring stretch example from above. After assuming the passive hamstring stretch, contract the hamstring muscles for 7-15 seconds by pushing against the partner. After the contraction, relax the muscles for 2-3 seconds before immediately returning to the same passive stretch, but at a further range of motion. This is called the hold-relax technique. Just as in isometric stretching, relax the muscles for 20 seconds before repeating. Another technique is called hold-relax-contract. This technique follows the same protocol of the hold-relax technique, however, after relaxing the muscles for 2-3 seconds, instead of going into a passive stretch, you contract the antagonist muscle to further relax the agonist. Lastly, there is the hold-relax-bounce technique which follows the same protocol of the hold-relax technique, but has a ballistic stretch for 10-15 seconds after the 2-3 second muscle relaxation. PNF takes advantage of the muscles ability to stretch further after completing an isometric stretch by adding a passive (or sometime ballistic) stretch. Much like isometric stretching, PNF stretching is useful for post work-outs and athletic performances, as well as on days-off when you are looking to increase range of motion and flexibility.

How to Start

When starting a stretching routine, the best bet is to start simple. Much like a workout, stretching works the muscles and muscle fibers, so they need to become conditioned to the movements and ranges of motions they are going through. Starting with too much or too hard is a great way to create a counterproductive result. Below is a quick list of rules one could follow to use stretching to enhance their athletic performance:

Always use dynamic stretching as a warm-up. Whether it is before a game, practice, workout, or on a day where you want to stretch to improve your flexibility, performing dynamic movements to properly warm up the neuromuscular system is a must.

Begin with passive stretching after your workouts or athletic performances. Many passive stretches are simple and easy to get used to. Ideally, we want to stretch for as long as our performances last (i.e. if we work out for 90 minutes, we should stretch for 90 minutes), however, beginning with a simple 20-minute stretch and increasing the total stretch time each week can go a long way in establishing an effective recovery method for your athletic development.

If just starting out, use passive and static stretching to work on increasing range of motion and flexibility on off days. Since many of these stretches are simple, you can learn how your body responds to different stretches and ranges of motion. As your athletic self-awareness increases, you can start introducing ballistic stretching into both your workout days to mobilize/activate muscles and on your flexibility gaining days.

When you are proficient in passive and ballistic stretching, start implementing isometric and PNF stretching into your routine. As effective as these two types of stretching are, rushing into these more complex protocols can be counterproductive. A smart athlete is an aware athlete, and knows when to push harder, when to advance, and when to pull back. This skill is only learned through practice and a demonstrated competency of simpler techniques and movements.

Stay tuned for upcoming videos of the aforementioned stretches on our YouTube and Instagram pages to guide you to effectively perform these stretches and incorporate them into your workout routine.   

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