Too many articles zero in on the how-to when it comes to stretching, so this one will be a little different.  What’s equally, if not more important than how to perform a stretch, is knowing the types of stretches to use, and when. This should help.

5 Types of Stretches

When most people think of “stretching” they probably think of a held position that lasts a significant period of time, yoga style.  In truth, that’s just one of five types of stretches we’re going to zero in on. Static stretching, mentioned here, involves holds that can last anywhere from 10 to 60 seconds.

Man-Stretching-Arm-In-Sunny-Room to boost your mental health
Dean Drobot

Static Stretches

Many view static stretching as a touch “old school”, and something that should be reserved for after a workout.  In truth, you can employ static stretches strategically during your workout for a certain reason:  When you hold a stretch, it’s important to remember that you’re not only stretching the muscle belly. You’re also stretching the fascia, the connective tissue, and the nerves.  Long story short, static stretching can act to temporarily dull and suppress the nervous system.

Applying this to a workout, if we notice we’re having a hard time targeting one specific muscle during an exercise, it may be because other muscles surrounding it are overactive (a common example of this would be the quadriceps doing too much during a squat or deadlift, therefore hindering a lifer’s ability to feel his glutes).  Holding a 30 second quad stretch and then immediately going into your next set of squats can level the playing field and allow the glutes to become more involved to assist the movement.

Dynamic Stretches

A second kind of flexibility tool is dynamic stretching. Since muscles are passing through movements here, this is an appropriate warm-up tool that can allow for synovial fluid release to joints and double as a vehicle towards greater mobility. Especially if your workout ahead involves many compound movements, dynamic stretches and drills can be worth their weight in gold for preparation. Examples of dynamic stretches include arm circles, leg swings, high knee walks, spiderman walks, and T-spine rotations.

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Active Stretching

Just as important as considering static or dynamic stretching is that of understanding the difference between active and passive stretching. In the case of the former, a lifter is actually allowing a co-contraction of antagonistic muscles to create a deeper stretch to the muscle in question. For example, think about a Thomas stretch to the hip flexors. In this stretch, a lifter lays face-up on the edge of a table with his legs hanging off. He holds one knee tucked into the chest, and allows the second leg to hang loosely.

Passive Stretches

A partner then gently pushes on the hanging leg, allowing for a giant passive hip stretch to be achieved. Contrast that with a half kneeling or lunge position stretch for the hip flexors done solo. In this stretch, contracting the glute on the trailing leg can intensify the stretch for the same hip, and in doing so can teach the body that tightness can actually be caused by looseness on the opposing side. Muscles only pull, and evening out the playing field by having the antagonist contribute to this “tug of war” can be just what’s needed to solve chronic pain or tightness issues.

Loaded Stretches

When it comes to lifting weights, we can take advantage of loaded stretches to create more mobility and enhance our warmup. Two great examples come in the form of squats and Romanian deadlifts. Many times a lifter may feel that he needs to cut his range of motion short in both of these lifts to avoid “buttwink” and lower back rounding respectively.  For big, muscular squatters, a set with the empty bar will look quite different than a set with even 95 pounds, since the light loading can allow a lifter to engage the right muscles to brace against the load, and create the freedom for other muscles to “let go” to create the needed hip and ankle mobility for better lifting range.

Romanian deadlifts change in nature substantially when performed from the top down. A loaded stretch creates longer hamstrings, which can drastically affect spine position due to how the hamstrings will act on the pelvis in bottom end ranges. This can positively affect the length-tension relationship of the hamstrings and increase their involvement while creating flexibility to promote a neutral spine. And you’ll notice the difference the next days after too!

Stretching VS Mobility Training

All of this flexibility talk comes with not just a grain, but a fistful of salt. For performance and a healthy functioning body, flexibility work is only half the battle. The real answer comes from mobility training. We can often mistakenly think the dynamic stretches listed above will take care of everything in the mobility category, but mobility is really challenged when it’s respected as a rightful offshoot of strength. The better muscles get at actively pulling a joint in to a given range of motion, the more positive effect this will have on a lifter’s mobility. This breakdown makes it simple enough in 60 seconds.

Despite all the different types of stretches that are out there stretching isn’t a be-all and end all. Ask any practitioner worth his salt, and he’ll say the same thing. Truthfully, it’s a tool that you should have in your tool box. Put these nuggets of wisdom to good use, and you’ll know just when and how to employ stretching to help your performance in and out of the gym.

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