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Are You Stretching All Wrong?

A physical therapist in a grey shirt is adjusting a woman's neck as she sits with her eyes closed in a white tank top, demonstrating proper stretching techniques. A spine model and medical diagram are visible on the background shelf, indicating the setting is a clinic or therapy room. MyFitnessPal Blog
In This Article

We often stretch before working out to avoid pulling a muscle, yet the benefits of stretching can be much more than that. With the right stretches, you can improve your strength, increase your flexibility and boost your performance.

So which stretches should you be doing? Some studies have shown polarizing results from stretching. There are some stretches that work better than others, and some popular stretches that are downright dangerous. Stretching properly and at the right times can be a big plus for your body, particularly when it comes to your joints.

Your body is a complicated interactive structure, and joints are the common denominator that keep it moving comfortably. In order for your joints to achieve their best range of motion, they must be stretched regularly and properly. There are 3 common types of stretches: active isolated, static and ballistic. When prepping for activity or addressing key areas of discomfort or stress, active isolated stretches are great to start with.

The Best Way to Warm Up and Increase Mobility

Active isolated stretching is considered safer than ballistic and static stretching. This technique works 1 muscle group, while an opposite muscle group relaxes and lengthens. For example, if your shoulder is experiencing discomfort:

  1. Stand tall and place your arms at your sides, locking your elbows, and reach back.
  2. The tops of your hands should face each other behind your back but not touch.
  3. Hold the stretch for just a moment to the point of tension, then bring your hands to the front of your body; the palms of your hands should now face one another.
  4. Both of your arms should look like French doors, opening and closing while doing this movement.
  5. You can repeat this stretch for 30 seconds, or more, depending on the level of discomfort you’re experiencing.

The key to active isolated stretching is to keep your joints active by moving them slowly, without stressing additional joints and muscle groups.

Active isolated stretches provide your muscles and joints with the mobility they need for everyday movements like walking your dog and activities such as playing catch or swimming. I recommend active isolated stretching when you wake up—primarily to get your joints and muscles moving—before you start an activity, after a workout and before you go to sleep. By stretching throughout the day and before and after activities, your joints and muscles will experience a full range of motion, which will help prevent stiffness and discomfort.

The Best Use of Static Stretching

Static stretching is the most common type of stretching; however, recent studies have shown that it isn’t ideal for everyone and should be considered with caution. Many people warm up using static stretches, but it’s been suggested that static stretching can impair your performance, as this technique inhibits the stretch reflex, or the ability to store kinetic energy in your muscles during eccentric movements.

In addition, static stretches have been commonly associated with reducing soreness, which is why most fitness enthusiasts look to this stretching technique for relief of discomfort. But the best way to get rid of soreness is to train your muscles and joints again. Continuously moving and training your body flushes blood into your muscles and restores mobility to your joints, thus speeding recovery.

I also have disappointing news for those who use static stretching as a warm-up. Static stretches don’t raise your body temperature enough to warm your muscles, which helps prevent injury. Ideally, you want to do a quick warm-up, such as a 10-minute walk or bike ride, prior to a more active/vigorous workout and before conducting any types of stretches. With this in mind, it goes without saying that static stretching doesn’t help prevent injuries.

All this being said, are there any benefits to static stretching? Yes! It’s great for improving your posture. For example, if you sit at the office all day, static hip stretches are a wonderful way to realign your pelvis and hip joints while activating your glutes.

Avoid This Type of Stretching at All Costs

Are there stretches that can be considered harmful? I don’t recommend ballistic stretching to anyone who’s not a professional athlete. Ballistic stretching can cause injuries and long-term discomfort. So why do you see Olympians like Michael Phelps rapidly moving his arms back and forth? Or sprinters like Lolo Jones jumping up and down really quickly before each race? It’s simple: Consider the person performing the stretch.

Someone who is that physically active and healthy has the body to accommodate those types of stretches. However, for the rest of us 99 percenters, ballistic stretching is harmful to our joints and muscles. Rapid movements like jumping up and down quickly put a large strain on muscles and joints in your knees and lower back. Bottom line: Unless you’re 100% healthy—“healthy” being defined here as someone who is a competitive athlete—it’s best that you steer clear of ballistic stretching. I recommend looking to active isolated stretching if you want to move as you stretch.

And the Best Overall Type of Stretching Is …

So where does that leave us? Is static stretching bad for you? Not necessarily; it’s just not very beneficial. Is active isolated stretching the best form of stretching? Current research points to yes. Should you avoid ballistic stretching? Unless you’re competing in the Olympic Games, skip it.

All in all, stretching comes down to your fitness ability and goals. Stretching is a great way to prepare mentally and physically for activity, and mobilize your muscles and joints. You just have to know what your body is capable of and what you’re trying to achieve when your stretch. Take the time to assess your areas of discomfort and stress, research various stretching techniques, and, when push comes to shove, consult a fitness trainer to ensure you’re performing the best stretches possible for your individual needs.

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