Stretching seems like a pretty simple topic, however, there is a little more to it than most think. When most people think of stretching, they are usually thinking of static stretching, or holding a “stretch” for 20-30 seconds then moving on to another. This has been the traditional warm-up and stretching program for as long as I can remember. How many times have you sat in gym class or sports practice doing static stretching as your warm-up? But there is a lot more to stretching than just static stretching. In fact, there are numerous other forms of stretching most people have never heard about. These types of stretching are superior for injury prevention, increasing mobility, flexibility, range of motion (ROM), and preparing for physical activity.
Flexibility vs. Mobility
Most people think flexibility and mobility refer to the same thing and are interchangeable terms. While they are related, there are some very important differences we must understand. Flexibility is generally referring to a single muscle or muscle group and its range of motion (ROM) in one direction. Think of flexibility as the old school bend over and touch your toes move. Mobility is generally referring to the body’s ability to complete movements, usually across multiple joints and muscle groups, through a full ROM. Think of mobility as doing a deep overhead squat, while keeping your feet flat on the ground and your hands over your head. Which one do you think will help your performance more? Yup, mobility is generally more important in optimal physical performance and injury prevention. The deep overhead squat requires multiple joints and muscle groups to work together to complete the movement. Sound a little like jiu-jitsu? What is the point of having great flexibility if that doesn’t transfer over into mobility? I’m not trying to say flexibility is pointless; in fact, increasing flexibility in certain muscles can definitely help with mobility, but too often people focus solely on flexibility and forget the bigger picture. How many times have you bent over and touched your toes in a match? I will bet it is nowhere near the amount of times you have squatted in a match. We must start focusing our stretching routine on improving mobility instead of just flexibility.
Dynamic stretching is a form of stretching where we use momentum to take the body and joints through a full dynamic ROM. To fully understand the uses and benefits of dynamic stretching, we must understand the difference between dynamic ROM and static ROM. When we are doing sporting activities with maximum exertion and speed, the added momentum and force from these motions often take our joint through a greater ROM than would be possible, passively or statically. This extra ROM seen with the added force and momentum during sporting activities is usually where most injuries and muscle strains occur. Have you ever “thrown your arm out?” This is a perfect example of dynamic ROM. All that force from throwing a ball as hard as you can takes your shoulder through a greater ROM then usually possible. Studies on pitchers in baseball have shown they can externally rotate at the shoulder beyond 90 degrees when pitching, but statically may not be able to get within 10 to 15 degrees of that ROM. This makes dynamic stretching a must to ensure increases in mobility and dynamic ROM. This is also the reason why dynamic stretching is the best form of stretching immediately prior to activity, especially jiu-jitsu. Dynamic stretching should be a huge staple in your stretching program and warm-up routine.
Ballistic stretching often gets confused with dynamic stretching, however, they are greatly different. Ballistic stretching involves active muscular effort and uses a bouncing motion where the end point is not held. Ballistic stretching can be very dangerous to connective tissue and muscles, especially if there has been a previous injury. Since it involves movement and momentum, and can sometimes resemble dynamic stretching, the two often get confused. The main difference is that dynamic stretching goes through the full ROM of joints with common movements, whereas ballistic stretching involves isolating one muscle group, holding like a static stretch and then bouncing in an attempt to stretch further. This type of stretching is very risky and there has not been any real evidence to suggest any benefits; therefore I would not suggest adding ballistic stretching to your stretching program.
Dynamic pre activity:
• Long arm swings
• Arm hugs
• Torso rotations
• Leg swings
• Prone scorpions
Do 20-30 reps of each, increasing speed with
Static post activity:
• Mod hurdler
• Cross knee hug
• Cross knee look behind
Hold 2-3 times each for 20-30 seconds
Static stretching is what most people refer to as “stretching.” Static stretching is slow and constant with the end position being held for an extended period of time. Because it is performed slowly and involves relaxation of the muscle, it is generally considered very safe and easy to perform. Static stretching has been shown to be effective at increasing flexibility. For these reasons, static stretching can and should be a part of your stretching program. However, while there is a time and place for static stretching, it should not constitute your entire stretching program. The most important thing to understand about static stretching is when you should and shouldn’t perform it. Static stretching should be done at the end of a workout or training session, never before. I know, I know, we have all heard forever, that we should stretch before to prevent injuries. Well, I hate to argue with your 5th grade gym teacher and little league coach, but that is just wrong. There are a few main problems with static stretching prior to activity. The first is the difference between mobility and flexibility. We want our warm-up to prepare us for the activities that will come during training. As mentioned, mobility plays a much bigger part during jiu-jitsu than pure flexibility. The next thing to consider is dynamic ROM versus static ROM. Like I mentioned earlier, static ROM does not and cannot reach the same extent as dynamic ROM. Therefore, static stretching does not adequately prepare the joints for what will come. Lastly, but probably most importantly, is the effect of static stretching on strength and power production. Recent research has shown that static stretching may produce acute inhibition of strength, power, and torque performance. These studies examined the effects of static stretching prior to strength and power performances. They have determined the main reason for the decrease is neural inhibition. There seems to be a dulling effect in the muscle’s ability to produce force after stretches are held for extended periods of time. One of the mechanisms responsible for strength and power production is the muscle spindles or “stretch receptors” in the muscles. They monitor the rate of stretch and cause the muscles to fire harder and stronger. Static stretching can essentially “relax” these stretch receptors and inhibit maximum muscle contraction. Simply put, if an athlete executes a static stretching routine and then attempts a maximal vertical jump, chances are they would score below their normal or optimal performance. Do you want to be weaker or less powerful during training? I certainly don’t. This is why static stretching should be done at the end of a training session. At the end of training, body temperature is high and tissue viscosity is very low making optimal conditions for flexibility gains. Static stretching can be a valuable part of your stretching program, as long as it is implemented properly.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation or PNF stretching, was originally developed to help treat neuromuscular disorders, but has since expanded to athletes as a way to increase flexibility. PNF stretching uses both passive and active muscle actions to facilitate relaxation and muscular inhibition allowing for a greater stretch and ROM. Both isometric and concentric muscle actions are used in very specific ways and timeframes to induce autogenic inhibition. Sound confusing? Well that it is, and that’s one of the problems with PNF stretching. While PNF stretching may be superior to other forms of stretching, it is usually highly impractical, as it requires a partner and some expertise. So, until jiu-jitsu gets to NFL status, with athletic trainers running around everywhere ready to stretch everyone out, it might not be practical, but if you have access to someone who knows how to properly do PNF stretching, you should take advantage.