Most people are familiar with static stretching, in which you hold a stretch for a period of time and then release. But there are several types of stretching you may not know about, including dynamic, passive and active stretching. These kinds of stretching have specific applications and additional benefits.
This is one of the types of stretching most people know about and do on a regular basis. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), static stretching involves stretching the muscle or muscle group to its limit and then maintaining the stretch. An example is a seated hamstring stretch, in which you reach forward to your toes and hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
There has been a lot of debate about when static stretching is most useful. Some research, as summarized in a meta-analysis in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports in March 2013, found that static stretching before a workout could be detrimental to performance, reducing strength, power and explosiveness.
However, more recent research has revealed that short-duration static stretching performed either alone or as part of a full warm-up routine has trivial effects on performance, according to a review article published in Frontiers in Physiology in November 2019. This doesn't make a big difference to the average exerciser, but athletes should keep pre-workout static stretches to less than 60 seconds.
Read more: 9 Post-Workout Stretches You Need ASAP
Dynamic stretching is typically recommended before a workout instead of using static stretching. This type of stretching involves performing controlled movements that gradually bring your muscles to their maximum range of motion. Examples types of stretching in the dynamic range include leg swings, high kicks and jump squats.
Because they both stretch your muscles and increase blood flow, dynamic stretches are a great addition to any workout. However, you should still warm up with some light cardio before performing dynamic stretches.
Choose dynamic stretches that are specific to the activity you're doing. For example, if you're doing lower body exercises, choose leg swings or high kicks. If you're working on your upper body, choose arm swings or shoulder mobility using a dowel or towel.
You can get even more specific, too, says the Mayo Clinic. For example, if you're going to play soccer, you should do dynamic stretches for your quadriceps, as those muscles are the most vulnerable to strains.
Active stretching sounds like it would be similar to dynamic stretching, but it is actually more similar to static stretching. Active stretching relies on agonist muscles and antagonist muscles — for example, the hamstrings and the quadriceps.
In an active stretch, you use the strength of an agonist muscle to hold your body in a position to stretch the antagonist muscle, then you keep it there for a period of time. An example would be bringing your straight leg up in front of you as high as you can and holding it there using just the strength in your leg. The agonist muscles — quads and hip flexors — contract, allowing the hamstrings and glutes to relax and release in a phenomenon called reciprocal inhibition.
If you do yoga, you'll have likely done an active stretch before, such as a wide-legged seated forward fold.
Ballistic stretching uses momentum to force a limb beyond its normal range of motion. This is done by bouncing in and out of positions – for example, swinging your leg up on to a bar with force at a height you wouldn't be able to reach in a controlled movement.
There isn't a lot of research on the effectiveness of this type of stretching. A small study involving 13 elite freestyle wrestlers found that a ballistic warm-up involving 13 different moves lasting for 10 minutes was more effective than a 10-minute running warm-up for improving flexibility, balance and strength. However, ballistic stretching wasn't compared to another type of stretching, so these results, published in the Journal of Education and Training Studies in September 2018, don't really mean much.
For the general population, ballistic stretching is likely not useful and, according to MIT, it can actually be dangerous. Because it doesn't allow the muscles to relax and adjust to the stretched position, it could cause them to tighten up because of your stretch reflex. This reflex is a protective measure by the body to prevent muscles from overstretching.
Read more: 11 Stretches Almost Everyone Can Do
Many people lump passive stretching together with static stretching. While it's true they are similar, there are some key differences. Passive stretching is also referred to as relaxed stretching because the aim is to relax the muscles as much as possible during the stretch.
In a passive stretch you take a position and maintain it using another part of your body, apparatus or a partner to hold it there. An example is raising your leg up and holding the back of your thigh with your hands. MIT explains that the splits are a form of passive stretch — in this case the floor provides the assistance.
Thai massage also incorporates passive stretching in addition to muscle manipulation. The massage therapist positions the person's limbs, then holds them in place to facilitate the stretch. According to the Pacific College of Health and Science, passive stretching loosens muscles and opens joints more effectively than other types of unassisted stretching.
MIT states that isometric stretching is much more effective than passive and active stretching on their own. This type of stretch uses the resistance of other muscle groups and isometric contractions of the muscles being stretched.
The mechanisms behind isometric stretching are complex, but MIT explains that if a muscle that is already stretched before the contraction is held in the stretched position for long enough, the initial passive stretch overcomes the stretch reflex, triggering muscle lengthening.
You can do isometric stretches on your own or with the help of a partner. An isometric stretch you can do alone involves holding on to the ball of your foot, then using your calf muscle to try to straighten your instep so the toes are pointed.
An example is a partner isometric hamstring stretch, where you lie on your back with your straight leg in the air and your partner pushes your leg toward you while you try to resist it. Hold for 7 to 15 seconds, then relax the leg for 20 seconds before repeating.
PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. MIT explains that it is not really a type of stretching but a way of combining passive and isometric stretching that results in maximum static flexibility. This type of stretching was originally developed as a treatment for stroke patients.
PNF stretching typically requires a partner to provide resistance against an isometric contraction and then to move the joint passively through its larger range of motion. There are a few commonly used PNF techniques, an example of which includes the "hold-relax." Following a passive stretch, the muscle is isometrically contracted for 7 to 15 seconds. The muscle is then relaxed for a few seconds, before being subjected to a passive stretch that stretches the muscle even more than the initial stretch for 10 to 15 seconds.
PNF stretching is usually performed by a professional because the techniques are varied and more complex than other forms of stretching. If you are interested in PNF, consult a sports trainer or physical therapist.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "Types of Stretching"
- Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports: "Does Pre-Exercise Static Stretching Inhibit Maximal Muscular Performance? a Meta-Analytical Review"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "Acute Effects of Static Stretching on Muscle Strength and Power: An Attempt to Clarify Previous Caveats"
- Mayo Clinic: "Stretching: Focus on Flexibility"
- Journal of Education and Training Studies: "Effect of Ballistic Warm-Up on Isokinetic Strength, Balance, Agility, Flexibility and Speed in Elite Freestyle Wrestlers"
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "Physiology of Stretching"
- Pacific College of Health and Science: "Thai Massage Can Open Joints, Stretch Muscles, and Rejuvenate Energy"