There are three main areas of stretching which I will focus on so let’s jump into it:
- Static stretching
- Dynamic stretching
- Isometric stretching
1. Static Stretching
What is static stretching?
Static stretching involves lengthening a muscle and then holding it still for a period of time.
It is called “static” because you are not moving.
An example of static stretching is if you were to stand with your feet together, reach down toward your toes, and hold that position.
This type of stretching will absolutely increase flexibility.
You need to make sure that your body is fully warmed up before you do static stretching–warm enough to break a sweat.
This is for both injury prevention and because your muscle is more pliable when it is a higher temperature, just in the same way that when you heat up a piece of plastic it bends easier.
Once you are warm, you lengthen the muscle and hold it for a period of time.
The length of time varies based on who you hear it from or what you read, but as a professional fitness instructor, I have always had my clients hold static stretches for 30-60 seconds.
You shouldn’t necessarily feel pain while you’re doing static stretches like this.
If you feel uncomfortable, it should only be mild.
Static stretching should actually feel pleasant.
Sometimes getting acquainted with parts of your body you haven’t talked to in a while may feel unpleasant, but daily stretching on a correct gradient should gradually ease you up to the point where you feel good while stretching different muscles.
When should static stretching be used?
The use of static stretching for a general person who is not a professional athlete—and even for most professional athletes—is at the end of a workout when you are thoroughly warm.
The muscles you worked out should be addressed as this will decrease your soreness and speed up your recovery time.
On leg day this may mean the difference between trying to walk out of the gym with tree stumps as legs or, with stretching, you may just feel a little shaky and weak.
To get a feel for this yourself, work out a specific muscle group one day and don’t stretch, just end off.
Then a few days later work out the same muscle group and stretch thoroughly.
Note the difference?
It is never a good idea for an athlete to do static stretching just before they compete.
Static stretching calms down the nerve activity of the muscle.
To put it bluntly, you can test the nerve activity in a muscle by sticking a probe into it (slightly painful).
Testing muscles before and after static stretching shows a significant decrease in nerve activity.
If you are an athlete trying to perform your best in a specific sport, you do not want your nerve activity down, you want it up!
That’s why caffeine is such a widely used supplement.
Can static stretching before bed help you fall asleep?
It definitely helped me!
Like I said, nerve activity to your muscles lessens after static stretching.
At one point in college, I was having trouble sleeping so I put this to the test.
For one month straight, I stretched for 15 minutes prior to putting my body in bed.
It got to the point where I would end off stretching, hit the pillow and be gone. No drugs needed.
2. Dynamic Stretching
What is dynamic stretching?
The word dynamic refers to motion.
This is in opposition to static stretching.
The concept is that you lengthen a muscle and then instead of stopping and holding the lengthened position, you let it come back to a normal length.
An example of this would be reaching down toward your toes and instead of stopping and holding at the bottom, you come right back up.
Dynamic stretching is stretching with movement.
You are not just moving, but moving through a range of motion at the targeted joint.
It is always good to be warm when you stretch and that applies to this type of stretching, too.
However, I regularly use it toward the end of a warm up, especially when I have an exercise in the coming workout that requires flexibility.
For example, if I am teaching an older man how to do a deadlift that day, I want his hamstrings to be slightly more pliable.
Old men typically have little flexibility in their hamstrings and the more range of motion you ask out of the hip joint, the less likely they are to pull a hamstring both in the workout and in life.
When should you do dynamic stretching?
I use dynamic stretching towards the end of a warm up and always when I am training athletes.
The only difference between your normal person and an athlete is the amount of work done.
Athletes do more work in a shorter amount of time and usually (depending on the sport) through a greater range of motion. I would consider dynamic stretching a vital component of any athlete’s warm up.
3. Isometric Stretching
What is isometric stretching?
The word “iso” means same and “metric” here refers to length.
This type of stretching is best done with a partner and involves a trainer stretching your muscle to a comfortable length (usually stopping when he feels a slight resistance) and holding it there.
The trainer then instructs you to contract the muscle against the resistance they are providing with their hand.
Usually with a cue of: “Press gently against my hand.”
As you contract the muscle against that resistance, there is no movement.
A person watching shouldn’t be able to tell you are putting effort against the trainer.
After a period of time, the trainer tells you to relax and he gently lengthens the muscle and then stops when he feels resistance. The process is then repeated.
Your muscles have a sensor in them that tells them how long a muscle has been stretched.
If you stretch your muscle too much, it is this sensor that tells your muscle to contract before it hurts itself.
Isometric stretching resets this sensor and allows a muscle to be stretched farther than it would under normal conditions.
When should isometric stretching be used?
Isometric stretching is most effective when used to handle problem areas.
For instance, I had a client who had been sitting at a desk job for the last 30 years.
His hip flexors were so tight that he could hardly stand up straight and he had that “old man walk,” where he was slightly bent forward.
At the end of every workout, I would have him lie down on the floor on his stomach.
I would then bend his knee and stretch his quadriceps (this stretch also stretches the hip flexors), have him press against my hand, then take it a little further, etc.
We did this every day at the end of the workout until his heel touched his buttocks.
When he started, there was no hope of him standing up and doing a quadriceps stretch because he couldn’t get his foot up high enough to grab it.
I used isometric stretching as a gradient approach to get his quadriceps and hip flexors loosened up to a point where he could do the stretches himself.
Relationship between flexibility and injury
There is a scale: On one side is flexibility and on the other is stability.
If you (or any specific joint of yours) lies too far to one side, you are at a higher risk of injury.
For example, a softball pitcher utilizes a full range of motion in her shoulder.
If you’ve ever seen one of these girls whip their shoulders around in a full circle, you’ll know what I mean.
Those shoulders need a tremendous amount of flexibility to get around in that range but also a ton of muscle to keep the shoulder stable and correctly seated in that shallow ball and socket joint.
I have had a few ex-softball pitchers and when they lose that muscle, the shoulder problems start coming.
The ligaments around the joint have become so flexible, that the joint tends to want to slip and slide around.
Another end of the spectrum would be John who works at a desk all day, never exercises and typically spends most of his day in one position.
Let’s say he stands up after a day’s work and steps on a wet floor.
His leg goes way out to the side and he is able to pull it back in time, but he tears his hamstring.
He was too far toward the stability side of the spectrum and ended up being injured.
You may be very flexible in certain joints and very tight in others depending on your background.
Some people play one-sided sports such as tennis where they have a very well developed shoulder – and then nothing on the other side.
With each client I train, I make it a standard procedure to observe range of motion in the shoulders, neck and spine, hip, knees and ankles.
A good trainer will observe this and not add a bunch of weight, speed or force to an area of the body that has significantly limited mobility.
This point marks the difference between a good fitness trainer and one who is not yet good.
If you want to find a good fitness trainer, find one who takes pride in having a low injury rate.
By this I mean that they literally don’t injure their clients.
Any fitness trainer can load up weight or add a crazy amount of repetitions to get someone sore.
But that increases the chance of injury.
Check around with the fitness trainers existing and previous clients before hiring him or her.
Massage, muscle movement, and muscle strength
A strong muscle is a relaxed muscle.
If you are going for pure strength in any muscle, you need to make sure that muscle is not locked up anywhere.
This is where massage comes in real handy.
Massaging a muscle helps release any points where that muscle has contracted, but not let go.
The point here is that you can’t contract a muscle that is already contracted.
To the degree that it is contracted, you have lost that much strength.
Combining stretching with massage and myofascial release
A well-rounded program to rehabilitate a stuck area would include myofascial release and stretching.
There is a whole subject of myofascial release: The use of foam rollers and other devices to break up stuck tissue.
I have found that the best approach to loosen up some old tight areas is:
- Thorough warm up
- Foam roller
- Stretching (Isometric or Static)
This approach is what I have found to be the safest and most productive.
The warm up helps prevent injury and makes the muscles more pliable.
Use of the foam roller breaks up connective tissue that has glued itself to the muscle, scar tissue, etc.
Then stretching at that point allows you to take the muscle to an even greater length without the connective tissue holding it back.
How often you should stretch
How consistent do you have to be on a stretching program?
Consistency is everything if you are trying to make gains in flexibility and range of motion that last.
Studies have shown that athletes who stop training first lose flexibility, then endurance, then strength.
That’s right, they literally paid athletes to go from their full workout programs to lying down in a bed all day.
They would remove them to do a few tests and the result was that flexibility goes first.
That means that you have to be consistent with your stretching routine.
Find ways to measure your progress and document it so you can refer to it in the future. If you are paying a fitness trainer, make them do the recording.
Range of motion throughout your life
Stretching isn’t a sport or a fad that you get into and then quit.
At any point in life you want to have full range of motion in any joint and strength throughout that range of motion.
When either strength or range of motion are affected, you’ll hear people say “My shoulder doesn’t move that way,” or “I have to sit down to put my socks on these days.”
You don’t have to end up an old creaky person.
If you are an old creaky person, then find a fitness trainer who is familiar with old creaky people and doesn’t injure them.
Assuming he or she holds several certifications and has a formal education in the subject, you should be much better off doing what they say as opposed to doing what you think is best.
Work with the trainer and have him teach you the program, get it written down and then continue on your own or continue under their supervision if you can afford it.
The biggest thing I have a hard time getting people to understand is the levels of strength and flexibility that they can reach in spite of their age or condition.
It, understandably, isn’t real to them until they put in simple daily routines and make tiny little improvements over time.
Some wins even come really fast. You’ll never know till you try.