The Landscape of Stretching

by Stephanie Sharpe

Most athletes know or have at least heard that stretching and properly warming up are necessary when preparing for competitions or any sort of physical activity. With this comes many different ideas of what is the most effective type of stretching. Is static stretching? Are dynamic stretches really necessary? What are ballistic stretches? Before and after a workout? The following will hopefully give some insight as to what will work best for you.


Ballistic stretching

Ballistic stretching uses an extra force such as bouncing to push muscles and tendons beyond their normal range of motion. By using extra force, the sensors in the muscle that tell it how hard and far it is being stretched are bypassed. This type of stretching can be beneficial to athletes such as dancers, football players, martial artists, or basketball players. Studies have been done with basketball players showing that ballistic stretching prior to a game can increase vertical jumps.


Ballistic stretching involves movement in different planes of motion which prepares muscles for a wider range of motion. It also helps improve mobility which is important when preparing the body for high impact activities. The speed and momentum included in this stretching is helpful in boosting motor performance of muscles during an activity. Most ballistic stretches mimic the actions of a specific sport which makes the body more comfortable performing movements on the field.


Both the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons and the American College of Sports Medicine warn against bouncing stretches. When a stretch is too forceful as with ballistic stretching, soft tissues around joints can be damaged can lead to tendonitis. Eventually, small muscle tears can develop which then reduces flexibility and movement. Ballistic stretching is often done incorrectly, too hard or too quickly, and is not recommended for everyday people trying to stay flexible and in shape.


Static stretching

Passive or static stretching is a stretch that is held for 10-30 seconds in a comfortable but challenging position. It does not facilitate a strong reflex response which helps in relaxation and alleviates muscle soreness. This type of stretching is considered safe and effective for improving flexibility and joint range of motion. It is also thought to be the safest way to stretch which means it is appropriate for most people. As a bonus, no special knowledge or assistance is necessary to stretch in this manner.


Static stretching is effective for correcting posture especially after a workout since muscles are still contracting and stretching will bring them back to their original length. After a workout would be the best time for static stretches because muscles, ligaments, and joints are warm and more elastic. Static stretching is also ideal for cramps, pains, and aches. However, the relaxing and elongating of the muscles does not necessarily prevent injuries.


Static stretching is ineffective as a warm up since the time it takes to stretch reduces heart rate and does not warm the muscles in preparation of activity. A warm-up or stretch before any contest should consist of active exercises that mimic the specific sport. Studies have shown that static stretching prior to a workout can actually reduce the explosiveness of muscles.


Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching involves movement and muscular effort for a stretch to occur. A dynamic stretch takes muscles and soft tissues to their full length. After a brief 3-5 second pause, the stretched muscle contracts and the muscle and tendons exert a force in the lengthened position. This method allows muscles to be lengthened and strengthened in its new range as well as working on balance and coordination. Dynamic stretches mimic the motions and movements that will be performed during the workout or activity; getting the body comfortable and ready for what is to come. They have also been shown to improve performance when they are done before an activity that requires power, strength, and speed.


There are many advantages of dynamic stretching. These include: increased power, endurance, speed of contraction, improved coordination, balance, and mental preparedness, as well as more efficient neuromuscular activation. Dynamic stretching also decreases risk of injury, increases blood flow, and promotes recovery.


If performed too quickly or if the motion is not completed properly, dynamic stretching can cause injuries such as sprains and tears. They are also not as effective for improving flexibility as static stretches are.

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Ballistic, static, and dynamic stretching may all have a place in an athlete’s routine depending on what goal he or she is trying to achieve. But it is not necessary for everyone to include all three types as part of their workout. It is up to you to determine what will work best. Additionally, and most importantly, make sure that you know how to properly execute them before trying anything new.

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