If you're going to take the time to stretch, you want your regimen to actually be beneficial. In many instances, however, people's stretching techniques can range from ineffective to potentially harmful. Follow the guidelines below to maximize the benefit of your stretches at home or in the gym.
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To reap all the benefits of stretching, most people should hold a stretch at the point of slight discomfort (but not pain) for 15 to 30 seconds at a time.
The 7 Types of Stretching
According to a February 2012 review published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (IJSPT), there are several types of stretches, though some overlap or can be used together. These include:
- Static stretching: holding your body in the same position for a set period to elongate the muscle
- Dynamic stretching: a constant series of movements to lengthen the muscle
- Active stretching: a move-and-hold combination using only the stretched muscle to hold your position
- Passive stretching: requires an outside force to move your body and stretch your muscles
- Isometric stretching: a type of static stretching, but instead of just holding a position, you contract the stretched muscle
- Ballistic stretching: using movement and momentum to get your muscle beyond your regular range of motion
- Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF): combines isometric and passive stretching
How Long to Hold a Stretch
When working on increasing your flexibility, The American Heart Association recommends taking your muscle to the point of a non-painful pull and holding for 10 to 30 seconds. This should be done two to four times on each side and ideally after a muscle has been warmed up with a few minutes of light walking or biking.
Older individuals may need to hold their stretches up to 60 seconds, according to the IJSPT review, in order to really improve their flexibility. However, everyone looking to improve muscle tightness should complete two to three stretching sessions per week, though you may need to do it more frequently after an injury or surgery.
You may need to slightly alter this plan if you're warming up before a workout or cooling down after. Pre-workout stretches should be dynamic (involving movement) to improve your performance and avoid stretching out muscles too much before demanding they run, jump and lift, according to an August 2008 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. And after your sweat session, help your muscle recover with static stretches held for 15 to 30 seconds.
Benefits of Stretching
Just as there are many opinions on how to properly stretch, there are also many different claims about how stretching benefits you. Unfortunately, not all are proven. Take injury prevention as an example. As a November 2014 systematic review published in Orthopedic Nursing explains, a conclusive link between stretching and reduced risk of injury has yet to be established.
That said, as the IJSPT points out, a regular stretching regimen can help you improve your overall flexibility. In addition, when it's incorporated into a warm-up routine prior to beginning a sport or exercise, stretching can help decrease passive muscle stiffness and increase your overall range of motion as you work out.
Finally, after a surgery or injury, focused stretching can help you regain lost mobility in a joint. It also aids in properly aligning collagen tissue which forms around the injured area. Ultimately, if you're unsure of how to stretch properly, it's best to work with your physical therapist or personal trainer to come up with a program that's right for you.
What Type of Stretching Is Right for You?
Static stretching alone isn't the only effective way to improve your flexibility or range of motion. The IJSPT review concluded that while static stretches are better for people performing sports like dance or gymnastics that require flexibility, dynamic stretching may be better for athletes who do a lot of running or jumping.
In addition, while women seem to respond better to static stretches, men seem to get more benefit from active stretching in which you start by using 75 to 100 percent of your effort to squeeze and hold a muscle for 10 seconds before statically stretching it.
Finally, you can add a foam roller to your stretching routine to help improve your flexibility. A November 2015 International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy systematic review found that the use of a foam roll or massage roller to perform short periods (anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes) of soft tissue massage to the muscle prior to static stretching was more effective than static stretching alone in increasing range of motion.
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: “Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation”
- Orthopedic Nursing: “A Systematic Literature Review of the Relationship Between Stretching and Athletic Injury Prevention”
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: “The Effects of Self‐Myofascial Release Using a Foam Roll or Roller Massager On Joint Range of Motion, Muscle Recovery, and Performance: A Systematic review”
- The American Heart Association: "Flexibility Exercise (Stretching)"
- Children's Hospital of Cincinnati: "Stretching Exercises to Prevent Sports Injuries"