There is a lot of controversy out there regarding the benefits, or lack thereof, of stretching. As a dancer, stretching is something I have always been taught to do, and never really questioned its validity…until now! Now, as a dancer and physiotherapist my view on stretching and its benefits have been challenged.
Before we get into the pros and cons of stretching, let’s talk about the different types of stretching, which will then help us understand how and when to utilize them. Most commonly when people think about stretching, the vision of sitting on the floor with one leg tucked in and the other straight out, reaching to touch your toes comes to mind, right? This is known as static stretching, in which a static (or still) position is held for about 30-60 seconds as a means to lengthen a muscle.
Static stretching, being the most common type of stretching, is also the most controversial. While some reports suggest that static stretching for at least 30 second can help improve flexibility and minimize risk of injury, other reports claim that static stretching has no benefit and can actually hinder performance in power sports. These reports suggest another form of stretching be utilized as a warm-up for power athletes, dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching utilizes gentle movements throughout a joint’s natural range of motion to elicit a stretch in the muscles. These movements often mimic the movements of the sport to help prepare the athlete for practice or competition.
Lastly, PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) is a form of assisted stretching, often only utilized by therapist during injury rehab to regain flexibility and restore normal joint range of motion.
Because each form of stretching elicits a different response from our muscles there is a distinct time and place that each should be used. I recommend dynamic stretching prior to activity as part of your warm-up…not only does it help gently stretch your muscles, but the movement gets your blood pumping to better prepare your body to exert itself.
Static stretching should then be performed as part of your cool down phase after strenuous exercise when your muscles are already warm and less susceptible to strain. Three sets of 30 second stretches can not only improve your flexibility, but it can also help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness!
Finally, PNF stretches should ONLY be used by a fitness or health professional that has thorough knowledge of anatomy and physiology, to assist you in restoring function to an injured muscle. This is not to say that stretching with a partner is a bad idea, in fact I think passive stretching with a partner can help challenge us to push ourselves, as long as you and your stretching partner can distinguish between discomfort and pain.
You know your body best, and you should always listen to what it’s telling you… if you feel stiff, stretch, but if you feel pain, stop!