While many people would prefer to do anything but a stretching or flexibility routine, it's nevertheless an important part of any fitness routine as it helps you improve flexibility, range of motion, and overall muscular health.
However, there are many different types of stretching and each has its benefits. So, it's important that you understand how to perform them, the differences between them, and, perhaps most importantly, when it's best to apply them in your training sessions.
But first...what happens when you stretch?
When you stretch, your body relies on proprioception, which is your body's ability to sense the position, movement, and orientation of your body parts in space.
During stretching, specialised receptors in your muscles, tendons, and joints called proprioceptors to send continuous sensory feedback to your brain, which allows you to accurately gauge the limits of a stretch.
One important proprioceptor involved in stretching is the Golgi tendon organ, which helps prevent you from overstretching muscles by triggering muscle relaxation when tension is too high.
Regularly including stretching in your programme can lengthen muscles, tendons (that connect muscle to bone), and fascia (connective tissue below the skin that supports tissues and organs). This will help improve flexibility and also releases endorphins, which can have a mood-boosting effect.
Types of stretching and when to use them
Before we talk about when to stretch let's quickly discuss how to stretch. Generally speaking, stretches should be held for around 30–60 seconds and you should continue to breathe deeply and slowly throughout them. You must listen to your body and learn to differentiate between discomfort and pain. If you ever feel the latter, you should immediately reduce or release the stretch.
Most if not all types of stretching fall within 4 categories with each being more or less suited to different phases of a training session or types of training. There is no "best type of stretching" for you, it will depend on your goals and needs.
This is the most common type of stretching to improve flexibility and it's suitable for almost everyone as it's safe and straightforward. It involves holding a stretch in a stationary position for around 30–60 seconds. Static stretching is best used during the cool-down phase of a training session when your muscles are already warm and you want to reduce muscle tension or soreness.
Examples of static stretching include hamstring stretch, quadriceps stretch, butterfly stretch, and chest openers.
Most people unknowingly do dynamic stretching as part of a warm-up, which is the most appropriate phase of a training session to do them in. It involves moving parts of your body to gradually increase the range of motion and they are best performed after a light cardiovascular activity to get your blood flowing.
Dynamic stretches you perform should replicate the types of movements you will do in a training session or sport. It's a great way to prepare your muscles for activity and improve functional flexibility, especially if you're planning to perform high-intensity exercise.
Examples of dynamic stretching include leg swings, lunge with torso twist, plank walk-outs, and butt kicks.
Ballistic stretching is commonly employed by athletes (under supervision) who have well-conditioned muscles. It involves bouncing and swinging movements to force body parts beyond their normal range of motion. Novice exercisers should avoid this as it can lead to injuries.
Ballistic stretching should be performed during the warm-up phase of a training session after proper cardiovascular activity to ensure muscles are more pliable.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF)
The complicatedly named PNF is an advanced form of stretching that combines static and isometric contractions, which is when there's no movement at the joint during a muscle contraction. It's most commonly practised after a proper warm-up and with the assistance of a resistance band or partner/therapist, who can provide proper guidance and instruction.
PNF is typically used to rehabilitate individuals from injuries who want to regain ranges of motion or functional abilities and by highly trained individuals seeking significant gains in flexibility.
Putting it all together
Now that you understand the different types of stretching and when to use them, let's take a quick look at how you might apply them in a training session.
Warm-up: Begin with 5–10 minutes of dynamic stretching. Focus on movements that target the muscles and muscle groups you will use in the training session, which could include light repetitions of the exercises you'll perform.
Conditioning (the main exercises): Smash your training session and notice how much better your body responds now you're properly warmed up.
Cool-down: Finish with 5–10 minutes of static stretching. Perform stretches for around 30–60 seconds that target the muscles and muscle groups used during the training session.
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