In the world of health and fitness, guidelines and recommendations are always changing—especially when it comes to flexibility training. How often should you stretch? When is the best time to stretch, and what kind of stretching should you be doing? The frequency of flexibility training is pretty straight forward; the American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching 2-3 days per week. As far as when and how to stretch, this is a gray area and depends on personal preference and fitness goals.
Types of stretching
There are three main types of stretching. Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) involves the use of a partner and is rather complex, so this discussion will focus on the other two stretching techniques—.static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is likely the most familiar type of stretching, involving a slow and constant stretch lasting for about 30 seconds—think of a hamstring stretch, for example. Static stretching seems to be the most effective way to increase the range of motion in your joints.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, moves a joint through its full range of motion several times. Basically, functional movements are used to promote dynamic flexibility by replicating movements used during an activity such as running or jumping. Arm swings, high knees, hip circles, leg swings, walking lunges and heel lifts are all examples of dynamic stretches.
Before your workout
The goal before your workout is to prepare your body for exercise. Traditionally, static stretching has been used prior to exercise in hopes of reducing injury risk. It turns out, however, that static stretching before exercise may actually be detrimental. Static stretching immediately before exercise causes losses in muscle strength, which leads to decreased performance. If you’re not concerned with force or power during your workout, go ahead and utilize static stretching prior to your workout after you’ve warmed up.
Dynamic stretching has not been shown to cause strength or performance deficits, making it a sound choice if you want to include some type of flexibility training in your warm-up while still reaching maximal performance during your workout. Due to the large body movements used in dynamic stretching, the stretching itself also makes for an effective warm-up, saving you valuable time.
To perform dynamic stretches, work the joints you plan to use during your workout. Move through your full range of motion, starting small and gradually building up to the end of movement in all directions. For example, begin to circle your hips in a clock-wise direction—with each pass, attempt to make your circle a bit larger than the previous one. Work your way up to 10 circles before switching directions and working your way up to full range of motion again. This process can be performed with every joint you choose to stretch during your dynamic stretching warm-up.
After your workout
Immediately after your workout, it’s recommended that you perform a cool-down routine to gradually ease your body back down into a resting state. This is a great time to incorporate static stretching. Your muscles are already warm and supple, which is exactly what you need to elicit the benefits of static stretching.
To get the most out of your static stretching session, stretch each muscle to the point of mild discomfort, holding the position for 15-30 seconds. Repeat each stretch at least once. However, avoid stretching cold muscles, as this can result in injury.
Phil Page. Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. 7(1): 109–119. 2012.