Updated: Jun 29, 2020
By definition, stretching is the lengthening of muscles and the connective tissues. Very briefly, by connective tissues, I mean your tendons and ligaments and fascia. The tendons connect muscle to bone, and ligaments connect bone to bone, and your fascia is a lining that wraps everything in your body, including making up 30% of your muscles. Fascia stabilises, encloses, and separates muscles and other internal organs with connective tissue sheets or bands. It's widely known that stretching has many benefits. These include better health, flexibility, and blood flow through your muscles, leading to an increased range of motion for your joints. Alongside this, stretching can improve sport performance, aches, pains, circulation, and stress. While stretching has countless benefits, there can also be perils. Over-stretching can lead to hyper-mobility, strains, and instability within the body. Over-stretching can also increase the time it takes for you to build flexibility, because the muscles are having to repair. If you've ever been sore after stretching, you know you've gone too far and need to dial it back. Proper technique is important to avoid over-stretching, which I will later discuss.
There has probably been at least one person tell you that there is one right way to stretch, but unfortunately, this isn't the case. There is one general rule of thumb; stretching is beneficial for everyone. However, there is no general way of stretching that works for everyone, and it can be exhaustive navigating the numerous ways to stretch, so I have tried to make the subject a little easier in a list below. Whatever your goals are for stretching, whether it's for complicated yoga pretzel poses, to relieve pain, to prevent injury in your sport, or anything else, it is worth experimenting with different techniques to find what suits you.
The body has a natural system that protects you; when you stretch too far, muscles contract to protect you. This contraction is called the stretch reflex (or myotatic reflex). When you reach too far or too quickly, the muscles send messages to your spinal cord detailing your muscles' length, triggering something called the stretch reflex which stiffens and contracts the muscle. The more sudden the change, the stronger the contraction will be. The stretch reflex is there to protect your muscles, connective tissues, and joints. Gradually, you can train your strength receptors to allow more significant lengthening of the muscles, but if you're new to stretching or working with tight muscles, your best course of action would be to go in slowly and listen to your body intently. It is much easier to stretch a muscle that is not in contraction. Have you ever been in a stretch and suddenly started shaking uncontrollably? Most often, this is your stretch reflex. Some times it can be for different reasons, but if you've gone in to a deep stretch very suddenly, the shaking is your muscles asking you to go easy.
The list below details some of the most common ways of stretching, some of which do require professional supervision, so make sure to stay mindful when experimenting, and do seek professional help and advice when and where ever you can.
Common types of stretching
Stretch a particular muscle until you find your 'edge'. Hold for a period of time; this could be anywhere from 15 seconds, all the way to 5 minutes in some styles of yoga. Your edge is a place with minor discomfort, but that is without pain. Take a gentle entry into your position, and aim to relax the muscles. Exit slowly; don't quickly escape a static stretch. Static stretching is useful for building flexibility as it's own stand alone practice, as well as aiding recovery after workouts, but stay mindful that you don't push too far as it can be easy to over-stretch.
Hold still and strong
Active-static stretching involves holding a stretch with the strength of agonist muscles (opposite muscles). The tension in your agonist muscles helps keep the stretched muscle relaxed; this is called Reciprocal Inhibition. An example of this would be lifting your leg straight up in front of you while standing. Your front thigh muscles (quadriceps) will stay active while your back thigh muscles (hamstrings) will be lengthened and relaxed. Active stretching improves flexibility and strength at the same time. Active-Static stretching is a useful and safe way to build flexibility as a own stand alone practice, as well as aiding recovery after workouts.
Active Isolated Stretching
Pull hard and let go
Most often using a strap, active isolated stretching involves taking yourself to the edge of your stretch and holding only for 1 or 2 seconds, then releasing. AI stretching is beneficial because the muscle tends to stay relaxed. In summary, AI stretching uses short and controlled stretches with intervals of relaxation. Active Isolated stretching is a safe way to build flexibility and increase blood flow through the muscles, and it doesn't require too much time and effort.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching
Contract and release
Originally developed to treat neuromuscular conditions such as polio and multiple sclerosis, PNF has since been shown to be one of the most effective techniques of stretching for increasing range of motion. There are numerous techniques, but they all employ a sequence of contracting your muscle right before stretching. By engaging your muscle right before you stretch, you trigger the brain to relax that muscle more than usual, allowing you to move into a deeper stretch. I often incorporate PNF stretching into my yoga routines. The PNF stretching method is best used under the supervision of a professional.
Bounce and force
Ballistic stretching uses momentum and bouncing to go beyond your maximum range of motion. It is generally not recommended, and can often lead to injury as it can continually activate your stretch reflex. Bouncing can also lead to microtears in the muscle, causing a buildup of scar tissue. Ballistic stretching is generally kept amongst experienced and seasoned stretchers and athletes due to the high level of flexibility improvement alongside the high risk of injury.
Swing and move
Dynamic stretching involves stretching with movement. By using controlled swings or movements, you can gradually increase speed and range of motion. There are no bouncy or jerky movements; examples of dynamic stretching include controlled leg swings, arm swings, or torso twists. Dynamic stretching is useful before workouts rather than a stand alone practice focussing solely on flexibility.
Stretch and resist
Isometric stretching usually needs a partner or a thera band, but can sometimes be done alone. Isometric stretching uses static (or still) resistance through each stretch. This method of stretching has been shown to be more effective than static stretching, and alongside this, it develops strength and decreases stretch-discomfort at the same time. You can use a partner, equipment, or apply resistance yourself during your stretch. Each position requires force that you resist holding still by pushing against. For example, lying on your back with one leg in the air, a partner is pushing your leg towards your chest whilst at the same time you're resisting by pushing your leg towards your partner. Useful as a stand alone practice in building flexibility quicker than most other methods.
When it comes to stretching, there are easy ways that we can minimise the risk of injury. These include the following:
Stretching cold muscles increases your risk of strain, so as with any other exercise, take 5 minutes to get your blood pumping. There are exceptions to this, for example, under professional guidance in a yin yoga class which intends to stretch cold muscles.
Make sure to introduce your body to whats happening slowly, go in gentle and avoid your stretch reflex from kicking in.
Avoid pushing yourself to places that hurt, this is your body's quick way of telling you you're going to far. Listen carefully to your body, it knows what to do.
Relax and breathe
Maintaining a state of calm will keep your muscles and connective tissues relaxed, and by breathing deeply, you'll continue to pump blood and oxygen through your stretched areas.
Stretch both sides
Seems obvious, but make sure to keep both sides equal. Hold stretches on both sides of the body for the same amount of time, even if one side is harder than the other.
Avoid too much heat
Hot muscles will go beyond their reasonable length, so try to avoid making a habit of stretching in really hot environments, for example, hot yoga classes.
All in all
The number of muscles we have through the body can make it feel overwhelming when it comes to building flexibility. If you're feeling this way, an excellent place to start is the lower extremities, your calves, your hamstrings, your quadriceps, your hip flexors, and your hips. These areas are critical for mobility, and you can find some excellent stretches for these on google. Shoulders and neck can be useful, too.
Stretches are recommended to be held for 15 seconds or longer, but research says this isn't always the case. So dependant on you, find a time that feels manageable. If you're new to stretching, try static, active-static, and isometric methods. Let me know how it goes!