What kind of stretching is the best for me?

Stretching has many benefits, including increasing blood flow and circulation to the muscles and joints, helping to prepare the body for exercise, aiding recovery after exercise and reducing the chance of injury. Stretching can help with increasing muscle flexibility and joint range of motion, can improve athletic performance, and allow you the range of motion to be able to move well in your everyday life. It can reduce tension and help you to relax tight muscles and also relaxes the nervous system and mind (let’s face it – we can all use that sometimes!).

But stretching is also an area that many people are confused about – is it best to stretch before your workout or after your workout and what type of stretching is best?
The answer is – it depends on what you want to achieve with your stretching. Different types of stretching at different times will help with different outcomes.

There are three main types of stretching you may have heard of: Static stretching, Dynamic stretching, and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching. Static stretching is where you hold a stretch position for approximately 30-60 seconds, dynamic stretching involves moving your muscles actively through a range of motion multiple times (such as leg or arm swings) and PNF stretching is a more advanced kind of stretching that I’ll explain below.

Dynamic stretching is the best type of stretching to do before exercise, as it helps prepare your body for movement and “wakes” your system up. Traditionally many sport teams will warm up by jogging around the field and then sit on the ground doing static stretches before starting the game. This doesn’t make sense, as static stretching will relax the tissue and the nervous system, and can actually make you more likely to injure yourself if you follow the stretching with intense exercise – it’s actually counter-productive. Whereas, dynamic stretching and mobility exercises help to bring blood flow to the area, lubricate the joints and “wake up” and prepare the tissues and nervous system for the exercise to come.

So, once you have warmed up the body you should go through some dynamic stretches relevant to what you are training in the session. For example, if you are training your legs or doing some running, front and side leg swings or high knees and bum kicks could be useful. If you are training your upper body, some shoulder rolls, arm swings and reach over type stretches could be a good idea. The idea is to start slow then slowly increase your range before gradually increasing the speed of the movements into your full range of motion.

Static stretching relaxes the muscles and the nervous system and is best done at the end of the day or after your workout. To do a static stretch, move into the position where you feel a good stretch but you can still relax (about a 7 out of 10 intensity) and hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds (or until the tissue eases and relaxes), concentrating on breathing as you relax into the stretch. If you’re doing it properly and not pushing yourself too hard, the stretch sensation should ease a bit as your body relaxes into the stretch.

Static stretches can also be useful for increasing flexibility, but if increasing your flexibility is your main goal, then PNF stretching is your best bet – it’s been proven to be more effective. PNF stretching is more advanced and is best done with some guidance if you’re new to it, but it’s really effective in increasing range of motion and flexibility.

PNF stretching starts off the same as a static stretch where you gently move into your end range but is then followed by a gentle isometric contraction of the opposing/antagonistic muscle in the end position. For example, if you were doing a Hamstring stretch you would add a gentle contraction of your quad muscles to increase the stretch at the end range (it can be useful doing this with a partner who can resist any movement while you do the contraction). After that, on a breath out, you then relax the muscle again and move gently further into the stretch (this technique over-rides the stretch reflex and allows you to move further into a stretch than you normally could).

If you’re using static stretching or PNF stretching to specifically improve your flexibility, I recommend doing it in its own session. I wouldn’t recommend doing it straight after an intense workout or strength session, as after these sessions you will have micro trauma in the tissue (small muscle tears) which is a normal part of the process of compensation that leads to the body getting stronger over time – but doing too much stretching can make it worse and make you sorer. After a workout I would recommend some very gentle static stretches, just to your current comfortable range of motion (about a 5-6 out of 10 intensity), with the focus of relaxing and reducing the tension in your muscles and body rather than pushing yourself to gain range of motion.

The only time I’d recommend using static stretching or PNF stretching before a session or within your strength programme is to down regulate an over active “facilitated” muscle or to improve your postural position so that you can do an exercise technique correctly. For example if you are trying to target your glutes in an exercise and your hamstrings keep taking over, then you could stretch the hamstrings before the exercise to “tone them down,” so you have a better chance of getting the glutes to fire. Or if your shoulders tend to hunch forwards – before doing a seated row for example, you could stretch the Pec/chest muscles to bring you back into a better postural position and make it easier for the opposing “pull” muscles of the back to do their job.

Targeted stretching done correctly can is very useful for improving posture, reducing pain and tension, preparing the tissue for exercise, and restoring mobility, but for optimal results you should consider which type is the best fit for purpose.

If you would like some more information about how to get the most out of your stretching, please come and talk to one of our friendly Personal Trainers and they will help you design the best stretching programme for your needs.