The Best Stretching Exercise for You

Learn how to stretch properly and find out which exercises are best for your warm-ups and cool-downs.

Not all stretching is created equal. It's important to know which stretches are inadvisable for you, which ones are useful, and when they are appropriate to perform.

Dynamic Stretches

Dynamic stretches are moving stretches incorporating multiple muscle groups in different planes of motion. These are best done before competition or practice. Examples include 2x10 Arm Circles, Lateral or Forward Lunges, and 2x10 Single-Leg Kneeling Upper-Body Twists toward the left and right sides.

Physical therapist Heather Moore, PT, DPT, owner of Total Performance Physical Therapy in North Wales, Pennsylvania, says proper dynamic stretches can increase blood flow, range of motion and awareness of your joint position.

"That is why you see everyone from amateur athletes to the NFL and NBA performing it," she says. "It has become a necessary part of a warm-up." (Learn how the Dallas Cowboys may have suffered the consequences of not starting dynamic stretches sooner.)

Moore cautions that dynamic stretches should be done with a controlled motion, without bouncing, and should focus on several different muscle groups at one time (e.g., Overhead Arm Raises with both arms while simultaneously alternating kicks with your left and right legs to waist level.)

Jordan D. Metzl, M.D., author of The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies and a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, says dynamic stretching is "a necessary component of any program: It improves your 'active' flexibility, the kind you need in every sport ... as well as strength and power production."

Do dynamic warm-up stretches anywhere from three to up to 10 minutes—long enough to raise your heart rate, elevate temperature in a muscle and induce perspiration.

Ballistic Stretches

Also referred to as bouncing stretches. Muscles and joints are more susceptible to injury from the sudden, rapid and jerky stretch movements, making ballistic stretches perhaps the most dangerous to perform.

Static Stretches

Gentle holding stretches to promote flexibility and greater range of motion, these stretches (e.g., Sit and Reach Hamstring Stretch, Standing Quadriceps Stretch) are done slowly and held in a comfortable range generally lasting from 10 to 30 seconds. Static stretches are usually best done after a workout or game as a gradual cool-down. They prevent muscle/joint stiffness and may also reduce soreness after exercise and lower mental and physical stress.

Dr. Metzl cautions that static stretching reduces blood flow to the muscles, diminishes central nervous system activity (limiting the brain's ability to communicate with muscles and reducing your capacity to generate force.)

"The bottom line: Never perform static stretching before you work out or play sports."

Some standing upper-body static stretches include:

Upper-Back Stretch: Interlace your fingers behind your head. Stretch your elbows back and squeeze your shoulder blades for 10-30 seconds.

Chest Stretch: Hold your left hand at chest level against a door frame and turn your body in the opposite direction. Repeat with your right hand.

Shoulder Stretch: With your left hand, pull your right elbow across your chest for 10-30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Seated Butterfly Stretch: Place your feet together with knees laterally spread apart on the floor. This effectively stretches the inner thighs/groin. Hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds.

Learn more about the basics of static stretching.

Passive Static Stretching

Passive static stretching (also known as relaxed stretching) involves holding a position with another part of your body or with the assistance of a partner during static stretching. For instance, during a Supine Hamstring Stretch, a teammate raises your extended leg to a comfortable level to facilitate the stretch for 10-30 seconds. An example of a partner-assisted upper-body static stretch would be a Seated or Standing Upper-Back Stretch with the athlete's arms laterally extended at shoulder level while the partner slowly brings the arms behind and instructs the athlete to squeeze his or her shoulder blades together and hold the stretch for 10-30 seconds. Passive static stretching is great for cooling down after intense exercise and helps reduce post-workout fatigue and muscle soreness.

Active Static Stretching

Here, you assume a position and hold the static stretch without assistance other than using the strength of your agonist muscles. An active stretch example is a Standing Quadriceps Stretch (bend your left or right knee and lift it high behind you toward your hip—without using your hands for assistance.)

Isometric Stretching

Isometric stretching is static stretching that involves the resistance of muscle groups through isometric (tensing) contractions of the muscles. This kind of stretching is an excellent way to enhance static-passive flexibility and is more beneficial than either passive or active static stretching alone. Isometric stretches require manual resistance with your hands or a partner.

Seated Butterfly Stretch: Use your elbows to press your knees toward the floor while trying to resist (or have a partner press your knees downward as you resist) for 10-15 seconds, then relax your muscle for about 20 seconds.

Supine Hamstring Stretch: With a towel or band around your ankle, raise your leg, provide resistance and try to push your leg downward. Tense the stretched hamstring 10-15 seconds, then release for 20 seconds.

PNF Stretching

PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) is generally partner-assisted stretches performed by a fitness professional. It combines passive and isometric stretching using a hold/relax system where stretched muscles are isometrically contracted, then relaxed. This is repeated to effectively gradually increase the range of motion following each subsequent PNF stretch. PNF stretching is one of the best ways to improve static-passive flexibility and further enhance a joint's range of motion.

Shoulder PNF Stretch: In a seated position, passively raise your right arm from chest to ear level. Have your partner press down on your wrist while you hold for about 10 seconds. Briefly relax your muscles (about three seconds), then stretch beyond your ears to level with the back of the head. Your partner presses down on your wrist while you resist for 10 seconds and relax for three seconds. You should now be able to increase the passive stretch of the shoulder joint behind the head and enhance the shoulder's range of motion.

References:

"Static vs. Dynamic Stretching." Philly.com. May 22, 2014.

Metzl, Jordan D., M.D. The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies (Rodale Books, 2012). pp. 262-263.

"Ballistic Stretching." Segen's Medical Dictionary. (Farlex, Inc., 2012).

Unm.edu. "Stretching: A Research Retrospective." 2010.

Web.mit.edu. "Types of Stretching." 2014.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: STRETCHING | CHEST | PRESS | RANGE OF MOTION