Stretching is an important part of fitness and sports training. Stretching can improve your flexibility, reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, increase your sporting or exercise performance, reduce muscle tension, minimize your risk of injury and help you relax. There are three main types of stretching, each offering different benefits. Choose the right type of stretching according to whether you are warming up, cooling down or just trying to improve your flexibility.
Static stretches are positions that are held for a predetermined length of time and can be classed as maintenance or developmental. Maintenance stretches are held for 10 to 20 seconds and, as the name implies, are designed to maintain your current level of flexibility. Developmental stretches increase your flexibility and are held for 30 to 60 seconds or longer. Static stretches include touching your toes while seated or pulling your foot up to your butt while standing. Static stretches are usually relaxing to perform and reduce your heart rate and body temperature.
Dynamic stretches involve taking your muscles through a large range of movement in a steady and rhythmical fashion. Dynamic stretches prepare your muscles for exercise or sports. Dynamic stretches include leg swings, arm circles, body weight squats and lunges. Increase the range of movement used for your dynamic stretches gradually over 12 to 15 repetitions. Dynamic stretches keep your heart rate elevated and your muscles warm while also mobilizing your joints.
For most general exercisers, the risk of injury associated with ballistic stretches means that this type of exercise is best avoided. If, however, you are involved in sports where ballistic stretches are the norm -- for example kick boxing, soccer or gymnastics -- this type of stretching is a necessary part of your training. Ballistic stretches are similar to dynamic stretches in that they involve big movements, but ballistic stretches are performed much faster. High leg kicks and bouncing during stretches are examples of ballistic stretching. If you do use ballistic stretching, it is important that your muscles are very warm to minimize your risk of injury.
General Stretching Guidelines
It is important to only stretch your muscles when they are warm. Cold muscles are less pliable and more prone to injury. Warm up before stretching by performing some light but progressive cardio for five to 10 minutes; for example walk, jog and then run. Warm muscles stretch much more easily. If you are stretching as part of your warm up, focus on the muscles you are going to be using in your workout. In your cool down, stretch any muscles that you have just exercised plus any that feel tight. Dynamic and ballistic stretches are best suited to your warm up and static stretches are best suited to your cool down. The longer you hold a static stretch, the greater your flexibility improvements will be.