Static vs dynamic vs contract/relax stretching: when to use each technique effectively

I’ve been asked multiple times about the different types of stretching and when to best implement them in to your fitness program. This blog will try to clear up some confusion regarding the different types of stretching and when they are the most effective.First of all, why stretch? As we know, the human body was designed to move and in most cases the greater range of motion we have, the easie…r the movement becomes. As we become more “mature” and are not as active, we tend to use only about 60-70% of our available range of motion. I also think we just sit too much. We may loose range of motion in a joint for 2 main reasons: muscle shortening or restrictions in the structures around the capsule, also known in the literature as “capsuloligamentous structures”.

This is important to keep in mind as you perform your stretching program because if you are not making gains in range of motion despite a regular stretching program, “muscle tightness” may not be the issue.
It may be restrictions around the joint capsule which would require a different treatment approach. The focus of this blog, however, is to discuss the different types of stretching and when they may be the most effective.

There are 3 main types of muscle stretching that are the most commonly used in exercise programs:
1. Static stretching: the most common type, defined as simply holding a specific position that creates a stretch sensation without any movement or muscle contraction. Usually held between 15-30 seconds. Example: static stretching of the hamstring would involve something like placing your outstretched leg on a chair in front of you and leaning forward until you felt a stretch in your hamstring muscle and then would hold it there for 15-30 seconds.
2. Dynamic stretching: this involves moving the joint through its full range of motion in a slow and controlled fashion, but not holding the stretched position. Example: a dynamic hamstring stretch would be to slowly kick your leg out in front of you while standing until you felt resistance in your hamstring and then repeat that movement a number of times, not holding the top position for more than 1-2 seconds.
3. Contract-Relax stretching or PNF stretching: There are many variations of this type of stretching, but it involves a maximal or sub maximal contraction of the muscle that you are stretching for about 5-10 seconds followed by a passive stretch for 20-25 seconds. Repeat the contract-relax steps for a total of 3-4 cycles. Example: if you were stretching your hamstrings from a seated position, you would place your leg (with your knee straight) on a chair in front of you and lean forward until you felt a stretch. Then, you would “contract” the muscle being stretched, in this case the hamstring, by pushing down in to the chair for about 5-10 seconds. The contraction is isometric, which means there is no actual joint movement. The force used is moderate and is held for 5 seconds, followed by a period of “relaxing” which then allows you to take up the slack in the hamstring by continuing to lean forward until a strong stretch is felt again. Repeat for a total of 3-4 cycles.

When is each type of stretching indicated?

As per the literature, static stretching is effective in making longer lasting changes in muscle length, should be held for about 15-30 seconds and repeated 3-4 times. Static stretching is most effective after an exercise session to help reduce muscle soreness (from tightness) and improve overall flexibility. However, Static stretching should not be used before exercises that involve high muscle activity as it has been shown to decrease maximum force output by 5-15% on average.

Dynamic stretching is the most effective way to warm up before an activity. It allows the muscle to warm up without the negative effects of static stretching. However, dynamic stretching alone has not been shown to consistently make long term changes in the length of a tight muscle.

“Contract/relax” methods of stretching appear to help make the most rapid changes in the length of a muscle. Therefore, if you have a chronically tight area, this may be the method of stretching that would afford the most beneficial changes.

In summary, most of us would benefit from both a combination of static and contract/relax stretching techniques after exercise and a sports specific dynamic warm up before we engage in sports or exercise. I hope this helps to clarify when to use the different types of stretching to maximize your fitness goals and to keep you moving!!! Let me know if you have any questions.
Ed Deboo, PT

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