By Tabitha Saunders, ATC
As an Athletic Trainer we often find ourselves asking athletes, “Are you stretching?” The answer is usually something along the lines of, “maybe not enough.” But what really is enough? And do they know when to stretch? Is it better to stretch before or after exercise? What kind of stretching should they perform?
The answer is, which like anything, it depends. It depends on the goal the athlete is trying to achieve, the sport, the individual, etc.
Flexibility is a key component of all exercise programs. It is used for a variety of reasons including; correcting muscle imbalances, increasing joint range of motion, decreasing the excessive tension of muscles, relieving joint stress, improving neuromuscular efficiency, and improving overall function. There are several different types of stretching.
Static stretch: the process of taking a muscle to the point of tension and holding the stretch for a minimum of 20 to 30 seconds. By holding the muscle in a stretched position for a prolonged period, the Golgi Tendon organ is stimulated and produces inhibitory effect on muscle spindle. This allows muscle to relax and provides better lengthening of the muscle. Static stretching can be used to decrease muscle spindle activity of a tight muscle.
Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Neuromuscular stretching, NMS, also called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, PNF, involves taking the muscle to its end range of motion (ROM), actively contracting the muscle to be stretched for 7-15 seconds, then passively moving the joint to a new end ROM and then holding that position for 20-30 seconds. The idea of this stretch is that during the isometric contraction, motor neuron excitability decreases which leads to autogenic inhibition, resulting in the ability to increase the length of tissue and achieving a greater ROM.
Dynamic stretch: this involves actively moving the muscles and joints repetitively while gradually increasing the ROM. Dynamic flexibility is often used as a warmup to stimulate the nervous system and muscles to be better prepared for the movement. The movement is usually specific to the exercise or sport that the athlete is going to play. For example, soccer players warm up by doing leg and hip swings in different directions, to practice the motion of kicking the soccer ball.
For athletes that need to increase flexibility for their sport or activity, performing static and PNF stretching techniques before will allow for an effective increase in ROM. Static stretching has benefits, such as improved posture and flexibility, reduce passive stiffness, and increase range of movement during exercise. Unless the athlete’s goal is to increase ROM for their sport, the best time to perform this type of stretching is at the end of a workout during the cool-down phase. It is best to stretch muscles when they are properly warmed. The data on stretching after workouts indicate that, on average, individuals will observe a reduction in muscle soreness during the 72 hours after exercise (Andersen, 2005).
When PNF is completed prior to exercise, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation decreases performance in maximal effort exercises. When this stretching technique is performed consistently and post exercise, it increases athletic performance, along with range of motion (Hindle et al., 2012)
Research suggests that beginning a workout with a dynamic warm-up is a safer and more effective way to prepare the body for exercise. A typical warm up will take at least 10 minutes and involve light aerobic movements and some dynamic stretching, which involves an active range of motion that should resemble sport specific movements. This functionally prepares the body for the activity.
Static, PNF, and dynamic stretching are all effective methods of increasing flexibility; however, these methods may need to be individualized to the activity. The flexibility demands of a gymnast are clearly different to those of a runner. In general, static stretching is most beneficial for athletes requiring flexibility for their sports. Dynamic stretching may be better suited for athletes requiring running or jumping performance during their sport such as basketball players or sprinters.
- Page P. (2012). Current concepts in muscle stretching for exercise and rehabilitation. International journal of sports physical therapy, 7(1), 109–119.
- Andersen J. C. (2005). Stretching before and after exercise: effect on muscle soreness and injury risk. Journal of athletic training, 40(3), 218–220.
- Hindle, K. B., Whitcomb, T. J., Briggs, W. O., & Hong, J. (2012). Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF): Its Mechanisms and Effects on Range of Motion and Muscular Function. Journal of human kinetics, 31, 105–113.