As we already know, stretching is a necessary part of a workout. It makes our exercising more effective in the long run and helps us prevent injuries. But when and how to stretch exactly for optimal effects? Here are some facts and tips about the main methods of stretching.

When to stretch?

Before we start any kind of stretching exercises, we must be sure our muscles and tendons have been properly warmed up. Never stretch without a warm-up! It’s the quickest way to a nasty injury followed by a long time of recovery.

From time to time, we can devote a whole workout session for stretching exercises, for example when our muscles feel sore and exhausted to the degree that makes it impossible for us to perform our regular set of exercises. In that case, nonetheless, we should also remember about a proper warm-up.

Usually, however, stretching exercises alternate with other types of exercises during a workout. The optimal order should look like this:

  1. General warm-up
  2. Stretching
  3. The proper part of the workout, e.g.: strength, endurance, aerobics, etc.
  4. Relaxation and stretching

The three stretching methods described in detail below are: dynamic, static, and PNF. Each type should be performed at the right part of a workout. Whichever type of stretching exercises we perform, we should avoid excruciating pain, yet be prepared for a slight discomfort which is natural.

Dynamic (or active) stretching

Active stretching is based on performing dynamic movements in which the body reaches the stretched position. Yet, the position isn’t held (picture all kinds of legs and arms swings, for example). While stretching dynamically, we should be entirely focused and our movements – fully controlled. We shouldn’t try to exceed our current movement range. As we stretch regularly, the movement amplitude will gradually extend by itself.

Dynamic stretching exercises should be performed at the beginning of a workout session, yet after a general warm-up (for instance several minutes of running and/or light jumping). They are to prepare our body for serious physical effort and protect us from injuries.

Static stretching

In static stretching, on the other hand, we assume the stretched position and hold it for some period of time. How long is the time depends on how advanced we are in stretching. We can hold the position for 15 seconds at the beginning, and as our flexibility gets better with time, we may extend the hold time for even 2-3 minutes. After the hold, we relax the muscles and then again assume the stretched position trying to slightly deepen the stretch.

We may stretch statically in a twofold way. Firstly, by tensing one muscle group, which allows the antagonist muscle group to relax and stretch. For example, during static stretching exercises for quads (extensors) , the hamstrings (flexors) will be tensed, and vice versa. Secondly, by using our own body’s weight. That is, we assume a stretching position, relax, and let the gravity to stretch our muscles and tendons.

Static stretching should take place at the final stage of a workout session. It is to soothe the muscles after a major effort, and to boost the blood circulation for a more efficient muscle regeneration.

PNF stretching

PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching method is adopted into sports from physiotherapy. That is why many PNF stretching exercises involve a partner, who plays the role of a physiotherapist helping us stretch our muscles. The method is very efficient, but requires good communication between the person being stretched and the helping partner. The other person can neither feel our pain nor estimate the level of our discomfort, so we have to communicate to avoid overstraining our muscles.

The PNF method uses the neuromuscular patterns of specific muscle groups in order to increase flexibility. In other words, it is to capitalize on the reflex arch between the brain and the muscles. PNF comprises several techniques, each of which involves a series of several steps, for instance:

  • the HOLD-RELAX involves:
  1. passive stretching (assume the stretching position stopping at the natural limit of range, hold)
  2. isometric muscle contraction (tense the muscle without changing their position)
  3. relaxing the muscle (as you’re relaxing, your partner is deepening the stretch a little)

  • the HOLD-RELAX-CONTRACT involves:
  1. passive stretching (assume the stretching position stopping at the natural limit of range, hold)
  2. isometric muscle contraction (tense the muscle without changing its position)
  3. relaxing of the muscle (as you’re relaxing, your partner is deepening the stretch a little)
  4. contraction of the stretched muscle’s antagonist (push in the direction opposite to the direction of stretching)
  5. relaxing the muscle (as you’re relaxing, your partner is deepening the stretch a little)
  • the HOLD-RELAX-SWING involves:
  1. passive stretching (assume the stretching position stopping at the natural limit of range, hold)
  2. isometric muscle contraction (tense the muscle without changing their position)
  3. active stretching (your partner is deepening the stretch by gentle pulsating movements)
  • the CONTRACT-RELAX-CONTRACT involves:
  1. passive stretching (assume the stretching position stopping at the natural limit of range, hold)
  2. contraction of the stretched muscle’s antagonist (push in the direction opposite to the direction of stretching)
  3. relaxing the muscle (as you’re relaxing, your partner is deepening the stretch a little)
  4. contraction of the stretched muscle’s antagonist (push in the direction opposite to the direction of stretching)
  5. relaxing the muscle (as you’re relaxing, your partner is deepening the stretch a little)

Note that in the C-R-C each time the contraction repeats, the movement range is extended.

The PNF stretching exercises usually are performed at the end of a workout. Yet, if increasing your flexibility is one of your main goals, they may as well be done just after a real good warm-up and some dynamic stretching exercises.

Which stretching method is the best?

There is no universal hierarchy of the methods. It’s good to combine all of them in your workout routine. You don’t have to do the dynamic, static and PNF stretching during each workout session, though you could if there’s enough time.

The dynamic stretching after a general warm-up is basically a must. Virtually, it should be seen as a part of a complete warm-up. At the end, you may do either static, or PNF. The important thing is, however, to always do some kind of stretching exercises at the final stage of your session.

You have to discover for yourself, which type works the best for you in terms of efficiency and convenience. Exercise the way you enjoy and the way that brings the best effects. For examples of particular stretching exercises, read the up-coming articles.

About Cathy Patalas

The sports soul and the alleged specialist in words of 52Challenges.com. The main 52C Blog writer. A diligent student at the English Department of the University of Wroclaw, majoring in applied linguistics. An ex-acrobat and aerobic gymnast with the 13-year long experience in „training for winning”. A multiple medallist of Poland nationals in acrobatic gymnastics, and academic nationals in aerobic gymnastics. A fan of gymnastics of every existing type. Personally, finds making everyday choices in a healthy lifestyle even more demanding a challenge than making everyday sacrifices in the athlete’s lifestyle.